I love words and etymology. Understanding where the meanings come from, even if they began in a wildly different way from how we now utilize them, gives the comforting feeling of order among the chaos that is the English language. Something cannot come from nothing, after all, and some words – like nice, for example – have had a particularly interesting evolution.
Let’s begin with a different point, however, which is the fact that the word ‘nice’ can be used as a compliment or an insult, and the determining factor is often gender.
People love nice girls. They’re demure, they defer to others, they don’t interrupt. They’re not loud or brazen or disagreeable. They remember birthdays and don’t step on people’s toes. They’re nice, and that’s seen as a good thing.
A nice guy, however? Not so much.
The moniker makes guys everywhere cringe, and typically accompanies a breakup (at least in the movies). It implies that he’s undesirable in some way, maybe even…feminine?
It’s interesting, considering that other similar words (like easy-going, friendly, polite, etc) don’t have similar issue when applied to different genders.
The word ‘nice’ comes from the Latin nescius, which means “not-knowing.” It remained the same into Middle English, basically meaning that “nice” people were foolish or daft.
In the 14th century, it shifted to refer to luxurious clothing, decadent tastes, or wanton-type behavior, and by the end of that century, it tended to mean dainty, delicate, and fine-mannered.
In fact, it wasn’t until the 18th century that the meaning began to turn toward the one we use – agreeable, kind, and thoughtful. But how did we get from foolish to thoughtful? What’s the common denominator in all of the definition?
It could be the idea that it relates to women and femininity and womanhood.
Fashion-obsessed, wanton, shallow, careful, dainty, fine-mannered, etc, are all terms that, for better or worse, tend to fall into female territory. So, it makes sense to wonder whether “not knowing” was originally considered girl-like, as well.
Especially considering that “nice girls” today might pretend to be dull in order to let others feel more important, right? Nice girls would never act smarter than a man, because that would humiliate him. They let men explain things to them. They learn but never speak up.
Women who speak up, who challenge men and push their way into spheres where men typically dominate, are loud and brash and nasty and cold – not nice at all.
You know I’m right.