A nice mess

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The people who complain about the supposed decay of English can be counted on to insist on some kind of etymological rigidity (decimate can mean only to reduce by one-tenth) or fixed meaning (as in the stubborn but futile resistance to gay meaning homosexual). The peevers and purists would do well to consider the career of the word nice.

The Oxford English Dictionary shows that back in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, as English was coming into its own, nice meant "stupid" or "foolish." Or it could mean "loose," "wanton," "lascivious," as in Chaucer's Romaunt of the Rose: "Nyce she was, but she ne mente Noone harme ne slight in hir entente, But onely lust & jolyte." Or "extravagant in dress" or "flaunting. Or "trim" and "elegant."


By the sixteenth century nice could mean "tender" and "delicate": "He ... was of so nice and tender a composition, that a little wind or rain would disorder him," Clarendon wrote. That sense extended to include "fastidious," "dainty," "difficult to please," or "refined."

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries nice moved from fastidious to "precise," "strict," "careful." A "nice distinction" was one made with minute attention to intricacy of detail and degree of difference, one made with some difficulty. Dryden said of Virgil that he "was of too nice a Judgment to introduce a God denying the Power and Providence of the Deity."


By the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries nice had taken on the more familiar sense of "pleasant," "agreeable," or "delightful." Jane Austen wrote to a correspondent, "You scold me so much in the nice long letter which I have ... received from you." Or attractive, in the sense of "looking nice." Or dainty, "a nice little china teacup."

In our age, crackling with so much non-Victorian cynicism, nice is by no means a positive term, and often serves as a one-word ironic putdown:

"It was a good dinner, but he drank so much that he got violently sick in the car on the way home."


So niceness can incorporate nastiness, and sometimes has, so we come around again to the point that gives the peevers and purists so much trouble. The language goes where it will and is what its users make of it. Say that again: The language goes where it will and is what its users make of it.

Yesterday, when I was snickering at the fatuous proposal for an Academy of English (Who would be on it, the self-appointed guardians?* By what standards would they operate? How could they imagine to enforce their dicta?), one commenter asked "Is there such a thing as bad English? If so, how is it identified? By whom?" Of course there is bad English. This blog has been devoted to the examination of defective writing. Professor Geoffrey K. Pullum excoriates some spectacularly bad grammar in this post on Language Log.

But many judgments about what is good and what is bad are inevitably subjective, and responsible writers and editors will avoid enlarging individual preferences into universals, and will always try to gauge where the language, that moving, shifting entity, happens to be at the moment of writing.

*For "guardians," read "cranks."