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What could be nicer than nice?

Picture the scene. I’m cooking lunch and put on some music to accompany the chopping when in comes Masie, who’s over from Washington. She picks up the CD case and looks at it with the sophistication that only a nine-year-old can manage.

‘Miss Harrison says you shouldn’t say that word.’
‘Which word’s that?’ I say, trying to stay calm, desperately trotting through the lyrics of You’d Be So Nice To Come Home To.
‘Nice’, says Masie. ‘It’s boring. I never say it.’
‘You just did.’
‘Don’t be childish.’

A survey later over the table establishes that everyone present has been taught Miss Harrison’s proscription. It seems that English teachers on both sides of the Atlantic, and for at least seven decades, are united in their belief that nice is not nice. Although I am professionally committed to the principle that no word is boring, I can see that Miss Harrison does have a point. Certainly you’d never expect to make it as an art critic wandering around the Louvre saying, nice, nicer, not so nice, nice.

If you can’t say something nice

On the other hand, there’s Cole Porter. Is there a lyricist in the twentieth century better able to place the exact right word in the exact right place?

‘You’d be so nice by the fire…
You’d be so nice, you’d be paradise
To come home to and love.’

Dinah Shore, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, and countless others have sung this wonderfully romantic song and shown that ‘nice’ can be a wonderfully romantic word. Sometimes when you get specific, as Miss Harrison would like, you limit what you describe. If whatever adjective you can think of isn’t good enough, you need an all-encompassing word that means that the thing in front of you is more than wonderful, everything you desire, and just all round nice. Theologians solved this problem with the via negativa: the idea that as no description is good enough for God, all you can say are negatives: God is not cruel, not a creation, and almost certainly not an Oxford United supporter.

In the same way Salman Rushdie, during his younger days in advertising, decided not to tabulate every charm of cream cakes but instead took for a slogan the 1939 film title, Naughty But Nice.

 A nice history

Nice is certainly not a boring word. Miss Harrison’s wrong there. It has had a fascinating and tangled journey from its origins in the Latin ne, not, and scire, to know. These two paired up to give the Latin nescius, ignorant, which became the rare and now obsolete English word nescious (which also means ignorant, never on Masie’s lips but still to be found in OED). Nescius spawned words meaning foolish in all the Romance languages, including the Old French, nice, which came to England with the Normans. Everywhere else the word held its meaning but in English nice soon meant all sorts of things. Chaucer uses it with at least five distinct senses, as a noun, meaning idiot, and then on various occasions, as adjectives to mean foolish, punctilious, strange, and lascivious (‘nice she was, but she meant no harm’).

The sense of punctilious or precise, as in ‘a nice distinction’ is still used, and I’m sure Miss Harrison would be happy with that, but it was only in the eighteenth century that nice came, in a mysterious and still unexplained way, to mean pleasant and attractive.

A nice ending of sorts

The lunch I cooked was nice. Afterwards I put on the Beach Boys’ album, Pet Sounds, but my guest punched the stop button at the end of that ingenuous first line: ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if we were older.’

‘Well, Masie’, I said. ‘That’s a nice way to behave.’

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