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.