Getting to the Root of Niceness


. . . or Why You Wouldn’t Have Wanted to Be a “Nice Girl” in Chaucer’s Time


You learn a lot by studying the history of a word. The Latin root of “nice” is nescius (picture Toula’s father Gus in My Big Fat Greek Wedding explaining this…) from ne meaning not and scire meaning to know. To be nice was akin to being ignorant or clueless.

Nice landed in France where, in the 12th century, it meant “weak, needy, stupid, silly.” It then hopped the English Channel where Chaucer liked his girls “nice” (wanton, lewd, lustful, and extravagant) and Shakespeare used nice to describe fools.

How did “nice” become so “nice?”

Nice bounced through the centuries going from “timid” (before 1300); to “fussy, fastidious” (late 1300s); to “dainty, delicate” (1400s); to “precise, careful” (1500s); to “agreeable, delightful” (1700s); to “kind, thoughtful” (1800s).  Jane Austen considered nice a vague, agreeable word. As she wrote in Northanger Abbey, “Very true,” said Henry, “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.” (

Now in the 21st century, many English professors ban the use of the word “nice” because it means everything and nothing in a fuzzy, diluted way. Even in medical terminology, NICE is an acronym for noninvasive conservative treatment or a nice way of saying “not much.” For many of us, our acronym of N.I.C.E. would be “Nodding, Invisible, Compliant, Exhausted.”

But surely, there’s a nice definition of “nice” in the Bible?

Nope.  As I mentioned in my first post, you can’t find “nice” in the Bible because it’s not there. The closest word may be “meek.” Whereas “nice” has come to mean pleasant with a side of people pleasing, the biblical meaning of meekness isn’t what we now think of as weakness but is strength under control. Jesus, who describes himself as meek and promises that the meek will inherit the earth, didn’t come to please people but to please his Father.

“Meekness is an active and deliberate acceptance of undesirable circumstances that are wisely seen by the individual as only part of a larger picture. Meekness is not a resignation to fate, a passive and reluctant submission to events. . . (the meek are) the strong who have been placed in a position of weakness where they persevere without giving up.” (

Nice Indoctrination

That nothing/everything word, nice, begins early and finds its way into many a baby’s nursery.


To heck with nice . . . .

This is what Bethany Hamilton, the young surfer who survived a shark attack, thinks of “nice:”



So now that I’m a “big girl,” this is my rhyme:

Courage and kindness,

No longer spineless.

That’s what rock-the-boat girls (and boys) are made of.

So what are you made of? What do you want to be when you grow up? More on that in my next post.




4 Comments on “Getting to the Root of Niceness

  1. I love the historical perspective of the word and its meaning or lack thereof!

    • Thanks, Julie! I’ll never think of nice in the same way again…and I think carefully before calling someone “nice.”

  2. Pingback: Why This is Not the Year to Call Me “Nice” – The Year of Not Being Nice

  3. Pingback: The Hall of Fame of Not-Nice People – The Year of Not Being Nice

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