Will's word

14th November 2003 at 00:00
Nice (adjective) "agreeable, pleasant"

Nice has been used as a general adjective of approval only since the 18th century. Before that, it expressed an extraordinary range of specific meanings. A 14th-century sense, "lustful", is found in Love's Labour's Lost, when Mote talks of "nice wenches" (III.i.21). Another 14th-century sense, "foolish", is probably dominant when sick Northumberland shouts at his "nice crutch" as he throws it down (Henry IV Part 2, I.i.145).

Sixteenth-century senses include "fastidious", as when Henry talks to Katherine about "the nice fashion of your country" (Henry V, V.ii.270); "uncertain", when Hotspur talks about a "nice hazard" (Henry IV Part 1, IV.i.48); "trivial", when Benvolio describes the quarrel between Romeo and Tybalt as "nice" (Romeo and Juliet, III.i.154); and "subtle", when Richard accuses Edward of standing "on nice points" (Henry VI Part 3, II.iv.17).

The one thing the word never means is just "I like it".

David Crystal is author, with Ben Crystal, of Shakespeare's Words, published by Penguin

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