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What’s the origin of the word “nice?”

nice guys

Recently the phrase “nice guy” has been used to describe guys who are anything but “nice” by current standards. Before it was taken down, the blog The Nice Guys of OkCupid showcased images from online dating profiles of self-proclaimed “nice guys” overlaid with misogynistic quotes taken directly from the text of these same profiles. Laurie Penny of New Statesman dubbed this “a dispiriting catalogue of desperation and misogynist entitlement.” The attention given to the phrase “nice guy” in the past year warrants an in-depth look at the term “nice” since its introduction to the English language in the early 14th century.

Nice, it turns out, began as a negative term derived from the Latin nescius meaning “ignorant.” This sense of ignorant was carried over into English, and for almost a century, nice was used to refer to a stupid, ignorant, or foolish person. Starting in the late 1300s, nice began to refer to conduct, a person, or clothing that was considered excessively luxurious or lascivious, however, by the year 1400 a new, more neutral sense of nice emerged. At this time, nice could be used to refer to a person who was finely dressed, someone who was shy or reserved, or something that was precise. By the late 1500s, nice was used to describe refined, polite society. There have been many other senses of nice over the years, but for this post, we’ll just be focusing on these ones.

The high value placed on being shy, delicate, and reserved in the late 18th century was instrumental in the amelioration of the term nice. Jane Austen writes about the ubiquitous nature of this now-positive term in Northanger Abbey when Henry Tilney teases the naïve Catherine Morland for her use of nice. He jokes, “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.” (This is reminiscent of Dorothy Bradshaigh’s mocking use of sentimental—more on that here.)

150 years later, English saw the introduction of the constructions “nice guy” and “Mr. Nice Guy” in the 1920s and 1950s respectively. The phrase “no more Mr. Nice Guy,” which emerged in the 1950s, foreshadowed the current pop-culture tone of “nice guy.” It evokes the image of a man who might have been putting on a show of being nice before ultimately reverting to a less amicable version of himself. The phrase “make nice,” which entered English at the same time, refers to a superficial smoothing of a tense situation. In this ironic trend, the 1967 song “Here Come the Nice” by Small Faces uses the term “the Nice” to refer to drug dealers.

In current usage, it’s not uncommon to see “nice guys” throwing around the term “friend zone.” A person (usually a guy) can be put in the “friend zone” or be “friendzoned” when someone he is interested in dating views him as just a friend. While friend zone can be used in a neutral way, it is often used in an entitled way, as in many profiles in The Nice Guys of OkCupid. One female blogger mocks this sense of entitlement in her blog post “Why Do Men Keep Putting Me in the Girlfriend-Zone?”

Of course, the term “nice guy” can still be used non-ironically to refer to a genuinely nice person. However, it’s important to keep tone in mind as you come across the term “nice guy” on the internet, especially if it appears in quotes. As a piece in Jezebel reminds their predominately female readership, “rule number one of being a real nice guy is that you never, ever refer to yourself as a ‘nice guy.’”

40 Comments

  1. Professor Duh -  October 13, 2013 - 10:37 am

    Jane Solomon obviously has some deep-seated issues that she needs to deal with personally, rather than to write definition articles in order to project her misandric and bigoted issues.

    Reply
  2. A.P. Ness -  September 19, 2013 - 6:40 pm

    Be Nice

    “Nice” is one of those words that seem to have lost depth of meaning over the years. We say “That’s nice” in reference to almost any object or situation not grossly objectionable. “Have a nice day!” we say, “Have a nice life!”

    The adjective “Nice,” like the adjective “great,” used to carry a secondary meaning. Up until the early twentieth century, being “nice” often meant to be “precise,’ “exact,” “fastidious” [even "overly fastidious"]. Nicety was a commonly used noun form for “niceness” in this sense.(OED)

    Though somewhat archaic, “nicety” is still a handy word to know.

    Reply
  3. Alan -  September 17, 2013 - 1:44 pm

    Gee thanks for continuing the stereotype that only men can be sexist! I for one have never been offended when a girl asked me to fix their car, help them change a tire, repair their house, and more… Oh wait yes I have! Some girl at work persistently asked me to do hard work when I am physically disabled from injuries and ONLY did it when someone was around so she can insult me and say “You’re suppose to be able to do it! You are a man! I am a small girl!” To which I would always reply with saying: “lets see you have a back that tries to go into spasms when you lift a water bottle because of several damaged vertebrae, and you can barely walk because of a heavily damaged knee, and having a right arm that is purely for decoration because it’s so damaged and then you can argue with me about who is suppose to be strong!”

    I’m sorry but it is NOT misogynistic for me to say that, nor is it misogynistic for me to say that if I get paid more because I’ve been working far longer than you have, not only because I am older but because you started working at age 21 or later, so I have had more pay-raises. Why are you complaining about not getting paid more when you expect me to buy everything for you, pay for food and dates, always pay for gas to come visit you and pay more for maintenance because I drive MY vehicle around FAR more than you do, which by the way you are driving a car that I PAID FOR, and even ask me to help you pay for repairs to that vehicle because you spent all your money on clothes, and then you turn around and claim that I am misogynistic and sexist just so you can get that pretty necklace? Oh right, because I get paid more… When I work harder, work more, and pay for far more things!!!

    So go ahead and claim men are oppressing women while they are doing dangerous and very hard work, go ahead and make sure you tell every man you see who is doing that while you are walking around in expensive but an over-priced outfit with shopping bags on your arm, and expensive jewelry…

    Go ahead and accuse me of being misogynistic, but when you’ve been beat up by your own mom while growing up, had some girls falsely accuse you of stalking them in school when your mom refuses to let you leave the house, and then have some women sexually abuse you including one woman who drugged you, abducted you and then abused you… Then at work when some girls were sexually harassing me a manager laughed at me and called me gay -_- Oh and lets not forget about the woman who hit me in a parking lot and left me for dead while I was knocked out and when someone found me I was laying in a puddle of my own blood!!!

    What have I done that is wrong to women? ABSOLUTELY NOTHING!!! So who hates who?! Maybe you should redefine the word “misogynistic” to include “justified…”

    Reply
  4. Coey Ohwow-Godsey -  September 15, 2013 - 9:30 pm

    I first learned the real meaning of ‘Nice’ aged thirteen reading Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, thanks to the plot containing “The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch”. It’s a very funny book. I had to mention it in the hopes a few other people can say the same.

    Reply
  5. m4gal -  September 14, 2013 - 10:07 am

    nice…

    Reply
  6. Kiki -  July 2, 2013 - 7:44 am

    Louis Charles d’Ince, whoever told you that anyone writing about the meaning of a word is obliged to copy half of the dictionary? That’s simply not true.

    And Matt, women want to hang out and hook up as much as the next person. If you insist on being a bitter snore, you’re actually quite lucky to end up in the friend zone at all.

    Reply
  7. Clarence -  July 2, 2013 - 5:00 am

    Check the word nice’s meanings in a good dictionary. lewd and lascivious…among others at one time

    Reply
  8. Greg -  June 25, 2013 - 6:56 am

    :))

    Reply
  9. Yuno Gasai -  June 25, 2013 - 12:39 am

    I said to one of my friends today, “You’re so nice,” and then I come across this. Ha ha.

    Reply
  10. ewk -  June 24, 2013 - 4:57 pm

    such a good article :D

    Reply
  11. Shirley -  June 23, 2013 - 3:49 pm

    For years I’ve known that nice had a negative beginning. Rather than wish someone a nice day, I prefer to wish them a pleasant day.

    Reply
  12. Charles Louis D'Ince -  June 23, 2013 - 2:19 am

    The article is nice in one sense, lax in another. It misses a whole section of meaning – still valid among craftspeople – centred upon ‘exact’ – Here’s some of the OED entry (meanings 1-6 aleready covered by the article):

    7. a.7.a Fastidious, dainty, difficult to please, esp. in respect of food or cleanliness; also in good sense, refined, having refined tastes.

    b.7.b Particular, precise, strict, careful, in regard to some special thing.

    †c.7.c Fastidious in matters of literary taste. Obs.

    d.7.d Precise or strict in matters of reputation or conduct; punctilious, scrupulous, sensitive.

    e.7.e Refined, cultured.

    8.8 Requiring or involving great precision, accuracy, or minuteness.

    9. a.9.a Not obvious or readily apprehended; difficult to decide or settle; demanding close consideration or thought; †intricate.

    b.9.b Minute, subtle; also of differences, slight, small.

    c.9.c Precise, exact, fine.

    †10.10 a.10.a Slender, thin. Obs. rare.

    †b.10.b Unimportant, trivial. Obs. rare.

    11.11 †a.11.a Critical, doubtful, full of danger or uncertainty. Obs.

    b.11.b Delicate, needing tactful handling.

    12. a.12.a Entering minutely into details; attentive, close.

    b.12.b Of the eye, ear, etc.: Able to distinguish or discriminate in a high degree.

    c.12.c Of judgement, etc.: Finely discriminative.

    d.12.d Delicate or skilful in manipulation.

    13. a.13.a Minutely or carefully accurate.

    b.13.b Of instruments or apparatus: Showing minute differences; finely poised or adjusted.

    14.14 Of food; Dainty, appetizing. spec. of a cup of tea.

    15. a.15.a Agreeable; that one derives pleasure or satisfaction from; delightful. nice girl (of an adult); freq. somewhat derisive.
       In common use from the latter part of the 18th cent. as a general epithet of approval or commendation, the precise signification varying to some extent with the nature of the substantive qualified by it.

    b.15.b to look nice, to have an agreeable, attractive, or pretty appearance.

    c.15.c Kind, considerate, or pleasant (to others).

    d.15.d In ironical use. Also nice and.

    16.16 As adv. Nicely. rare.

    17.17 Comb. as nice-conscienced, nice-eared, nice-fingered, etc.; nice-becoming, nice-looking, nice-spoken; nice-discerning, nice-judging; nice-driven, nice-preserved, nice-spun.

    All right, it’s stuffy,but many world authorities are. I once ahd the rare privilege of talking to Mr Havel, at that time President of the Czech Republic. We agreed, with rueful humour, that we had one thing in common: everyone on earth thinks that they would be better at our jobs than we are.

    I suggest, Ms Solomon, that you stop cherry-picking the dictionary (or some historical novel) to demonstrate your superiority and learn to read to the end of the entry, or at least to cross-check to a more comprehensive source.

    Reply
  13. Bob D -  June 22, 2013 - 10:13 am

    When can we tackle the word neat?

    Reply
  14. Marilyn Alice -  June 22, 2013 - 8:35 am

    “Necio/cia” in Spanish means “ignorant.”

    Reply
  15. Marilyn Alice -  June 22, 2013 - 7:44 am

    Interesting blog, Jane!
    And a compelling argument, Matt.
    I feeling completely unsatisfied, but thanks for your thoughts. :)

    Reply
  16. Marilyn Alice -  June 22, 2013 - 7:42 am

    Elijah, you said,
    “Men just need “real men” to educate them on how to be the kind of guy women actually want, and learn how to tell when a woman is genuinely interested in him vs. keeping him around to provide her with attention.”
    I’m sure that there is more to being “real man” than figuring out how to make women want them.

    Reply
  17. Joe Q -  June 21, 2013 - 7:06 pm

    Nowadays every Single Guy looking for someone to hang with describe themself a “Nice Guy” to Trip with, ironically this is not true most of the times. Excellent Article!

    Reply
  18. John -  June 21, 2013 - 11:24 am

    To decipher the term ‘nice’ pay attention to the tone of voice and body language, and the context of it’s usage.

    Reply
  19. Jennifer Ann Gordon -  June 21, 2013 - 8:06 am

    Nice is a four-letter word, most definitely! Women have suffered from being taught that being nice, or agreeable at all costs, is the epitome of womanhood. ‘Nice’ is lackluster, at best. ‘Nice’ is the lazy person’s substitute for all the other juicy and delicious descriptors one might choose. Nice is the least sexy and most overused word on the planet.

    Reply
  20. Ace-of-Stars -  June 21, 2013 - 6:27 am

    I remember hearing many years ago something very similar about the *original* definition of the word “CUTE” – that this term originally meant “lame” or “crippled.” Could this be looked into further & verified?

    Reply
  21. Richard L Berry -  June 20, 2013 - 1:31 am

    My English teacher at school (around 1976) used to get really annoyed when one of his pupils used ‘nice’, on the grounds that it was a lazy meaningless word. There had to be some other word we could use to express why we thought something was pleasant, beautiful, good, tasty, useful, well behaved, helpful….

    Reply
  22. bekka jion -  June 19, 2013 - 7:13 pm

    I was watching John Pilger’s excellent documentary “The War We Don’t See”, and in one video clip a soldier (guess the country) in an aircraft that had just fired on and eviscerated a number of unarmed civilians in the Middle East, (including two Reuter’s reporters) just comments, “Nice!”. Used alone, the word has a power of enthusiastic comment.

    Reply
  23. Elijah -  June 19, 2013 - 2:54 pm

    This article is obviously slanted, and from a woman’s perspective. Men have a valid reason for being bitter about the friend zone, and I’ll explain why. What women want and what they say they want are generally different things. “Nice guys” are men who try to conform to what women say they want in a man, and many of the are placed in the “friend zone”, because they are not what a woman ACTUALLY wants in a man. This isn’t women’s fault exactly, because they do this without realizing it. Men just need “real men” to educate them on how to be the kind of guy women actually want, and learn how to tell when a woman is genuinely interested in him vs. keeping him around to provide her with attention. Many women will string men who want them along, saying “oh, me and him are just friends”, knowing that he wants more (and holding that against him), but never actually communicating to him that they are not interested.

    Reply
  24. Walt -  June 19, 2013 - 1:33 pm

    @Bruce, See “or something that was precise” in second paragraph.

    Reply
  25. Matt -  June 19, 2013 - 11:31 am

    Ms. Solomon – you should be rather embarrassed with this article. You wrote an entire article about the origins of the word “nice” that fails to mention the French or Turkish cities, or the Greek influences on the word even once. Sure Nice and Nicaea are two of the oldest human settlements. Sure they have both attracted artists due to luxury, beauty, and culture for millenia. Sure Nice is a global focus of both modern fashion and art. Sure Nicaea was the temporary capital of the Byzantine empire during the crusades (right around the change in meaning). Sure Christians unwittingly refer to Nicaea every time they repeat the Nicene Creed. But no. I’m sure none of those had anything to do with the evolution of the meaning Nice.

    You apparently slapped together the origin that you found on awebsite without researching and considering the multiple origin influences… solely as an excuse so you could complain about “nice guys” and “the friend zone”.

    Reply
  26. doux -  June 19, 2013 - 9:58 am

    some things are strange..who had have thought that the word nice had that back side…..lol

    Reply
  27. laura -  June 19, 2013 - 8:51 am

    This is cool, i love this website and i think this article is “nice”. (:

    Reply
  28. Abha Sah -  June 19, 2013 - 8:41 am

    Very informative. I had been told long ago in school, that once upon a time ‘nice’ meant precise or appropriate and not pleasant as we usd it then.

    However the even earlier meanings are revealing!

    Reply
  29. Pat K -  June 19, 2013 - 5:37 am

    Thanks..didn’t know this..I had often wondered why my mother of 89 never used this word..
    Her up bringing she would say..

    Reply
  30. bholland -  June 18, 2013 - 5:54 pm

    you used the phrase “…someone who was shy or reserved, or something that was percise.” However, I think you meant “precise.” Even dictionary.com doesn’t know what “percise” means. (And my spell checker keeps flagging it.)

    Reply
  31. Marc D. -  June 18, 2013 - 4:33 pm

    In Henry V, act V, The French Queen offers to mediate at the discussion of the treaty terms, as a woman’s voice might bring calm, “When articles too nicely urged be stood upon.”
    I’ve always understood this use as ironic, with ‘nicely’ standing in for ‘with too much vehemence,’ but given what it says above about nice meaning its opposite, perhaps I’m mistaken.

    Reply
  32. Mcal -  June 18, 2013 - 4:25 pm

    Nice must be a nice place

    Reply
  33. Bruce Hurley -  June 18, 2013 - 12:28 pm

    I always thought that nice came from its use as a descriptive term for subtle or precise: “a nice shot,” “a nice distinction.”

    It’s easy to see how this usage could decay into its current form: “nice shot” means a precise, accurate shot, but it sounds like a generic compliment. Therefore, why can’t a car or even a person be “nice?”

    This article ignores this etymology completely, but it’s difficult to conclude that there is no relation to these two uses.

    Reply
  34. michelle -  June 18, 2013 - 11:09 am

    great article! didnt know some stuff about being a nice guy!

    Reply
  35. Yahooey -  June 18, 2013 - 7:38 am

    niiiiiiice.

    Reply
  36. Ole TBoy -  June 18, 2013 - 6:57 am

    “Of course, the term “nice guy” can
    still be used (in) non-ironically to refer”
    you say. Take the “in” out or say “in a
    non-ironic way”…to make better sense.
    Interesting article nevertheless.

    Reply
  37. Silly1 -  June 18, 2013 - 4:43 am

    Nice article! Whatever that means?

    Reply
  38. Julaihah -  June 18, 2013 - 3:54 am

    Didn’t know that ‘nice’ meant completely different in old days. Well, next time I’ll prefer not to use the word ‘nice’ to describe a person, obviously every person deserve a more better word than just a ‘nice’ :D

    Reply
  39. G. Young -  June 17, 2013 - 8:20 am

    Don’t forget C.S. Lewis’ use of the acronym N. I. C. E. as the name of the satanic corporation antagonist in his book, ‘That Hideous Strength’. In the book, it stands for, ‘National Institute of Co-ordinated Experiments’.

    Reply

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