Culture

The not-so-nice history of the word ‘nice.’

by Rachel Reilich

December 10, 2018
Gloria Steinem undercover as a Playboy Bunny.

What do we mean when we say someone’s nice? Tempting though it is to dismiss “nice” as bland filler—something to say when there’s nothing to say—upon closer examination, nice reveals itself to be a fascinating shapeshifter. Depending on how it’s used, nice is either a compliment or an insult, a soap bubble or a bomb—and that’s interesting. Particularly because what often alters its meaning is gender.

Think about it: in “nice girl” we encounter an entirely different adjective than we do in “nice guy.” Whereas “nice girl” feels almost redundant, “nice” describing such a basic ingredient of feminine behavior that “nice” and “girl” are virtually interchangeable, “nice guy” elicits a cringe. To call a guy “nice” denies him his manliness, to imply, on some level, he is impotent, powerless… girl-like. 

But how did this happen? Why should nice’s meaning shift according to gender? None of its synonyms do. Laid-back, thoughtful, easy-going, good-natured, friendly, polite, considerate: few men would find their masculinity threatened upon being described as any number of these words. 

Meanwhile, nice is the Everydude’s death knell—rejection’s clarion call. “You’re a nice guy, but…”

When a woman calls a guy “nice,” she doesn’t mean he’s kind or cool or good: she means he’s not doing it for her. (For a pair of words responsible for so many break-ups, you have to admit, “nice” and “but” are remarkably committed.) 

But I’m getting off-course. What I really want to know is this: what is it about “nice,” as opposed to its many adjective-equivalents, that feels “correct” (i.e. gender-affirming) when applied to women, but “incorrect” (i.e. gender-undermining) when describing men?

To find out, turn to the word’s etymology. Nice didn’t always mean what it means today. “Nice” comes from the Latin nescius, which literally means, “not-knowing” (from ne, “not,” and scire, “to know.”) Even centuries later, when the word found its way into Middle English, that meaning more-or-less remained the same: “nice” still connoted ignorance. If you were “nice,” that meant you were simple, foolish, daft—an idiot.

Trump looking particularly "nice." (Michael Vadon/Flickr)

In the 14th century, however, the meaning changed. But, again, not into what it means today. Late Medieval “nice” referred to, “excessively luxurious clothing,” “decadent tastes,” or, “wanton, coy, or lascivious behavior.” Basically, “nice” turned into a useful descriptor for any given Lannister from Game of Thrones.

Legendary “nice guy” Joffrey Lannister. (HBO/"Game of Thrones")

But by the end of the 14th century, the meaning changed yet again. Now, nice meant “dainty,” “delicate,” or, “fine-mannered.” It wasn’t until 1769 that “nice” began to acquire our more modern associations: “agreeable, kind, thoughtful,” etc.

Isn’t that bizarre? How did a word that once meant “empty-headed” turn into a word meaning “thoughtful?” True, the meanings of words often change—at times dramatically—but seldom is that change so confounding and seemingly inexplicable. Look at nice’s opposite, “naughty,” for example: 

In the 1300s, naughty people had naught (nothing); they were poor or needy. By the 1400s, the meaning shifted from having nothing to being worth nothing, being morally bad or wicked. It could refer to a licentious, promiscuous or sexually provocative person, or someone guilty of other improper behavior…. But in the same century, “naughty” also had a gentler meaning, especially as applied to children: mischievous, disobedient, badly behaved.

The evolutionary link between the two definitions is clear. Initially, “naughty” referred to an absence of material wealth, later, to an absence of spiritual wealth. The transition between the two meanings hardly leaves one scratching their head. 

So, what then is “nice’s” evolutionary link? How did we get from dumb to decadent, from debauched to dainty? What kind of linguistic crazy glue holds them all together? What’s the throughline?

Could it be femininity? 

Think about it: every variation of “nice,” no matter how seemingly unrelated, describes (ostensibly) feminine behavior. Fashion-obsessed, coy, wanton, shallow, timid, careful, dainty, delightful, fastidious, fine-mannered, delicate: this is (for better or worse) “girl” territory. The only definition that doesn’t present as obviously feminine is the first: “not knowing.” But, seeing as the source spawned exclusively “feminine” definitions, doesn’t it stand to reason that “not knowing,” too, was once considered girl-like? 

In the original meaning of “nice,” have we stumbled upon evidence, buried in the language itself, that “not knowing” remains a fundamental ingredient in our current definition? That, even today, “nice” may, in fact, describe a particular kind of “not knowing”—the kind exhibited (or, more accurately, faked) by “nice” girls on the daily?

In other words, does being “nice,” on some level, involve acting dumb?

“Nice” girls are bred never to trounce a man’s intellect—that would be humiliating (not nice). Instead, “nice” girls, if not actually ignorant, mimic ignorance—creating a gender-appropriate illusion of subordination and dependency. Nice girls need someone else to know things for them—to explain. Instead of knowing, the nice girl learns—but never surpasses. She listens—providing an agreeably empty head to fill. “Nice” is a female mathematician who smiles and nods as her male date explains basic arithmetic. “Nice” is not raising your hand in class. “Nice” is Lisa Simpson’s Malibu Stacy doll who, at the pull of a string, giggles inanely: “Don’t ask me! I’m just a girl!”  

“Thinking too much gives you wrinkles!” -- Malibu Stacy


When women affect “not knowing,” men are instantly transformed. They become the knowers—the keepers of intrinsic wisdom—useful, empowered, superior—in a word—manly. To deny them this pleasure—to politely point out, “I know that,” or worse, “You’re wrong,” well. That disrupts the illusion. The woman reveals herself to be independent, even superior—definitely not nice. 

Meanwhile, women in the business of knowing — Hillary Clinton comes to mind — are “nasty,” “cold,” and, above all, “crooked.” It’s ironic, but women who mask their intelligence—who basically live a lie—are considered more trustworthy, more authentic, than women who don’t. Since elected, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is, according to Rep. Bill Pascrell, “carrying on and she ain’t gonna make friends that way…. She’s not asking my advice, [but] I would do it differently, rather than make enemies of the people.” But you have to wonder: is she really making enemies because she’s, “doing things differently?” Or is she making enemies because she’s not, “asking for advice?” (i.e. not affecting ignorance to put others at ease, i.e. not being “nice?”) 

You’d be hard-pressed to find a man who would relish being called “nice.” Perhaps it’s time women felt the same way. 

 

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The not-so-nice history of the word ‘nice.’