A once useful word that is now practically bankrupt of meaning. Think of how many times this word is employed when one feels obligated to fill the air with noise:

Case in point: I once worked for a large insurance company that underwent a far-reaching computer systems conversion. The new system, developed at the corporate offices to standardize regional business units, was called N.I.C.E. The nice system. How cute. How friendly. The most common question during the implementation was, "What does the name stand for? What does it mean?" Nobody knew. Finally the help desk would say "It doesn't mean anything. It's just the name."

The capital of the Alpes-Maritimes department of France (having more than 1 million inhabitants). Nice is a truly magnificent city in the French Riviera founded as early as 300 BC by the Massaliots (at the times called Nikaia - which means victorious).
The city is one of the places that most American backpackers seem to have on their "can't miss this" list when touring Europe. From here, you can - except from enjoying the not so sandy beach - quickly get to the Alpes, or take a 40 minute bus ride ending up in Monte Carlo, Monaco.

Although overrun by tourists, the city has got a bearable nightlife that isn't too expensive to throw oneself into. In the old parts of town, you find plenty of night clubs keeping you entertained for the entire night. (personally, I tried to fall asleep on the street, waking up about 6.30AM Saturday morning having absolutely no money or papers on me - shit happens)

Also a type of biscuit. Non-descript, as the word implies, these little pinnacles of culinary delight can be found in every student's cupboard, as when you buy the Tesco Value biscuit barrel selection to get the custard creams and the bourbons, no-one seems to want to eat these. They actually say "nice" on them though.

A word the subject of extraordinary superstition even to this day. There are no campaigns to eschew 'good' and 'bad', no disgust that 'big' and 'small' are meaningless. Yet, purely out of ignorance, the parallel word 'nice' is accused of overstepping the bounds of good usage.


'Nice' is similar in meaning to 'good'. Strictures to one would apply equally to the other. They are simply general terms of approbation. General terms are a staple of language. It is impossible to function unless you can sometimes say that a thing is merely "big" or "good". This is the level of discrimination appropriate in many contexts. When someone says a thing is nice (or bad or small) they are usually describing it correctly, accurately, and informatively. If you want more detail you can add more detail.

This fetish about it comes from the fact that it is a newcomer to this meaning. It has only meant 'good' generally for about 250 years. So this is held against it: it was said to be colloquial, and the upstart never entirely shook off the shame of its birth. Of course, no-one thinks it's colloquial these days. Attacks on it are just blind parroting now. You learn in school that a word (or a piece of grammar) is "bad" and you carry this pernicious belief through life, and perhaps even pass it on. (Memes about so-called "bad" language seem to have quite a bit of survival value. I don't know why.)

The history of 'nice' seems to be along the following lines. (Disregard Webster 1913 below.) From its original meaning of 'ignorant' (Latin nescius), it moved through 'weird' and 'strange' to 'exotic' or 'unusual', at which point it could be applied to things like food or cloth, and acquired senses of 'delicate', 'dainty', which are the first senses that survive into modern times.

Then it acquires senses of 'discriminating', 'particular', mentally delicate or fine: a nice irony, a nice question, a nice distinction.

Its application to food was probably extended to give the common modern sense: "it looks nice" said first of a capon or a junket, then applied more generally.

The primary modern sense was firmly established before 1800. Jane Austen wrote of "a nice long letter", where it's merely qualifying another adjective. This was in one of her own letters: see evilrooster's below for its famous occurrence in a novel. At this date it really was a newcomer to that meaning; but that was two hundred years ago.

The older surviving senses have continued to exist in parallel, but these days sound old-fashioned, or might not even be understood: "a nice question" might be taken to mean just "a good question" rather than "a question difficult to decide".

Use the word 'nice' as you grew up using it and as everyone around you uses it. Don't fall victim to pointless and unfounded superstitions. "Have a nice day" is a silly phrase, but "it's a nice day today" is good, clear English.

The controversy over the usage of nice is as long-standing as its range of meanings. Although Jane Austen used it in its modern sense (see Gritchka's write-up), she also recorded the common attitude toward that usage.

"...But now really, do you not think Udolpho the nicest book in the world?"

"The nicest; by which I suppose you mean the neatest. That must depend upon the binding."

"Henry," said Miss Tilney, "you are very impertinent. Miss Morland, he is treating you exactly as does his sister. He is for ever finding fault with me for some incorrectness of language, and now he is taking the same liberty with you. The word 'nicest', as you used it, did not suit him; and you had better change it as soon as you can, or we shall be overpowered with Johnson and Blair all the rest of the way."

"I am sure," cried Catherine, "I did not mean to say anything wrong; but it is a nice book, and why should I not call it so?"

"Very true," said Henry, "and this is a very nice day; and we are taking a very nice walk; and you are two very nice young ladies. Oh! it is a very nice word, indeed! it does for everything. Originally, perhaps, it was applied only to express neatness, propriety, delicacy or refinement; people were nice in their dress, in their sentiments, or their choice. But now every commendation on every subject is comprised in that one word."

Chapter XIV, Northanger Abbey (1798)
(hardlinks added)


nice is the name of a system call to change the scheduling "priority" of a running process. It is also the name of a program which uses this system call to exec some program with a different "priority".

nice(), the system call

nice(priority) sets the "priority" of the current process to priority. This is a value between -20 and +19; low values of priority run faster (this is distinct from what most people would consider normal usage). The default priority is 0.

Successive calls to nice will set a new priority, relative to the old one. However, only root may decrease priority. So any process which you, the lowly user, can create without help from the superuser will have priority≥0. And after calling nice(5), say, a call to nice(2) will change your "priority" to 7, not to 2.

A related system call setpriority lets you set niceness of other processes, process groups or "users" (i.e. all processes running with a given UID).

nice, the command

nice [-priority] PROGRAM ARG1 ... runs the given program with the given arguments, at the given priority. It works by calling the system call nice(priority), then exec'ing the given program. So all restrictions on priority are transferred from the system call to the command. If priority isn't given, the default priority of +10 is used.

Note the priority is preceded by the usual "-" option sign. So "-10" is the (default) "priority" of +10; to set a "priority" of -10 (and you have to be root to do that), you use "--10"...

There is also a renice command (any adjective can be verbed?), which uses setpriority to change the priority of (other) already running processes.

"Priority" controls how much CPU time a process will receive. Processes eligible to run are selected to run by the scheduler based on how long they've been waiting to run; the mechanism takes the "priority" into account to give the desired effect.


To see the effects of nice in the comfort of your own $HOME, try this:

[ariels@HumptyDumpty tmp]$ ./infinite_loop & ./infinite_loop &
[5] 25234
[6] 25235
[ariels@HumptyDumpty tmp]$ top -i -b -n 1 -p 25234 -p 25235
25234 ariels    18   0  1100 1100   956 R    49.5  0.4   0:06 infinite_loop
25235 ariels    19   0  1100 1100   956 R    50.4  0.4   0:06 infinite_loop
By default, both processes receive (roughly) the same amount of CPU time: about 50% each. But if we nice one of our infinite loops:
[ariels@HumptyDumpty tmp]$ ./infinite_loop & nice ./infinite_loop &
[7] 25237
]8] 25238
[ariels@HumptyDumpty tmp]$ top -i -b -n 1 -p 25237 -p 25238
25237 ariels    20   0  1100 1100   956 R    66.4  0.4   0:08 infinite_loop
25238 ariels    18  10  1100 1100   956 R N  31.8  0.4   0:04 infinite_loop
The first process is getting twice as much CPU time than the second. We can increase the discrepancy further:
[ariels@HumptyDumpty tmp]$ ./infinite_loop & nice -15 ./infinite_loop &
[11] 25264
[12] 25265
[ariels@HumptyDumpty tmp]$ top -i -b -n 1 -p 25264 -p 25265
25264 ariels    20   0  1100 1100   956 R    74.7  0.4   0:12 infinite_loop
25265 ariels    19  15  1100 1100   956 R N  25.2  0.4   0:04 infinite_loop

Trying to nice a process with a negative "priority" will fail, of course -- ariels isn't root:

[ariels@HumptyDumpty tmp]$ nice --10 sh
nice: cannot set priority: Permission denied
So I can't get a "priority" better than 0. And if I open a shell with worse "priority", it can't return to priority 0. That priority may be my birthright, but it's not the shell's:
[ariels@HumptyDumpty tmp]$ nice bash
# Our new shell is now running at "priority" 10.
[ariels@HumptyDumpty tmp]$ ./infinite_loop & nice -5 ./infinite_loop &
[1] 25332
[2] 25333
ariels@HumptyDumpty tmp$ top -i -b -n 1 -p 25332 -p 25333
25332 ariels    20  10  1100 1100   956 R N  58.9  0.4   0:13 infinite_loop
25333 ariels    20  15  1100 1100   956 R N  41.1  0.4   0:08 infinite_loop
The second infinite_loop's "priority" is definitely worse than the first's. Since the first was at "priority" 10, the second is at "priority" 10+5=15.

Nice (?), a. [Compar. Nicer (?); superl. Nicest.] [OE., foolish, fr. OF. nice ignorant, fool, fr. L. nescius ignorant; ne not + scius knowing, scire to know. perhaps influenced by E. nesh delicate, soft. See No, and Science.]


Foolish; silly; simple; ignorant; also, weak; effeminate.



But say that we ben wise and nothing nice. Chaucer.


Of trifling moment; unimportant; trivial.


The letter was not nice, but full of charge Of dear import. Shak.


Overscrupulous or exacting; hard to please or satisfy; fastidious in small matters.

Curious not knowing, not exact but nice. Pope.

And to taste Think not I shall be nice. Milton.


Delicate; refined; dainty; pure.

Dear love, continue nice and chaste. Donne.

A nice and subtile happiness. Milton.


Apprehending slight diffferences or delicate distinctions; distinguishing accurately or minutely; carefully discriminating; as, a nice taste or judgment.

"Our author happy in a judge so nice." Pope. "Nice verbal criticism." Coleridge.


Done or made with careful labor; suited to excite admiration on account of exactness; evidencing great skill; exact; fine; finished; as, nice proportions, nice workmanship, a nice application; exactly or fastidiously discriminated; requiring close discrimination; as, a nice point of law, a nice distinction in philosophy.

The difference is too nice Where ends the virtue, or begins the vice. Pope.


Pleasing; agreeable; gratifying; delightful; good; as, a nice party; a nice excursion; a nice person; a nice day; a nice sauce, etc.

[Loosely & Colloquially]

To make nice of, to be scrupulous about. [Obs.]


Syn. -- Dainty; delicate; exquisite; fine; accurate; exact; correct; precise; particular; scrupulous; punctilious; fastidious; squeamish; finical; effeminate; silly.


© Webster 1913.

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