If you can’t say something nice …



Imagine you are at the Westminster festival in London in May of 1306 to watch King Edward 1 knight his son, Edward of Caernarfon. You need to be a man for this scenario to work, so if you are a female, imagine that your take-home pay is as much as your male counterparts.

Everyone imagined up? Good, let’s proceed.


While you are enjoying your third cup of ale, a big, burly man calls you nice. Enraged, you try to punch him in the jaw, which is both stupid and foolish because he is twice your size. Your aggression proves to everyone within bowshot that you are, in fact, nice. Back then, nice meant stupid or foolish.

But don’t feel bad. Edward of Caernarfon, destined to sit on the throne in 1307 as Edward II, was deposed after twenty years for being nice, too. The nice things he did included military defeat at the hands of the Scots, murderous revenge, scandals, plotting, and lavish living, among other royal entertainments.

For several hundred years, that four-letter word nice insulted and disparaged people by calling them foolish, wanton, lascivious, fastidious, cowardly, and showy. Then by the late 1700s, nice changed its wicked ways, stopped going into bars to start fights, got a respectable job as an bookkeeper, and starting calling people refined, cultured, and respectable. Suddenly nice was finding other people agreeable and pleasant.

Some words at 700 still look hale and hearty; nice does not. His hair is thinning, his belly’s thickening, and his feet are flattening. He mumbles a lot and has begun to call everything and everyone nice. It doesn’t feel right to me, however. It’s a little too nice, if you know what I mean (and I think you do). Do you hear that hint of sarcasm when he speaks? “How nice,” he says in his treacly voice, when he really means, “How mediocre or bland.” It’s a short road from bland to vapid to stupid.

Maybe he’s making a comeback as an insult instead of a compliment. It would make for what some may call “a nice story.”




30 thoughts on “If you can’t say something nice …

  1. Have you seen in the news, somewhere, that it has been decided/hypothesized that there are
    a bunch of words (a gaggle of words) that have been around the human race (the European human race? I should check my sources for greater accuracy) for around 15,000 years?
    Or was that 10,000? Anyway, the debate is on, because that’s a lot longer than words are
    supposed to last.
    I was really saddened to see the prediction, in a separate article, that in 200 years, if the human race is still around, Shakespeare’s language will be as deeply incomprehensible to most people as Chaucer’s is now. And it will HAVE to be translated. On the other hand, the
    people who are obsessed with the beauty of his language will take the time to learn Early
    Modern English, or whatever it will be called then. But, what will happen to stage performances?

    • This trend is already here, Mary Jane. I’m fascinated at our increasing reliance on video and sound recordings for teaching, when my students’ writing shows me their recognition and understanding of the “heard” language are less and less extensive, less and less accurate.

    • How sad to think our descendants will be unable to read our blogs. 🙂

      I think technology is increasing the rate of change, but English is such a versatile and robust language I think it will retain its power and beauty. Classics will just have to be translated into the language of the day; the stories never lose their ability to draw us in.

  2. There’s also the “particular” and “punctilious” meanings, favorites of mine: “That’s a nice argument, very precise and hair-splitting!” LOVE this word and its wanton ways!

  3. People have been known to describe me to others as nice, and now, having been educated on the various complexities of the word, I see that indeed, I am a nice person. Although I suppose I should reach for something a bit more complimentary in nature, (after all, only a fool would want to be nice), but in my little corner of the world, nice is about as good as it gets. This was quite a nice story for a Saturday afternoon, and thanks for sharing.

    p.s. BONUS POINTS awarded for the use of the word vapid (another favorite!)

  4. Nicely said indeed. 😉 Considering that half of the men on hand on the occasion you related were probably named Nancy and Beverly and Hilary and Evelyn and Vivian and Barbara (before women won the right to bear those names), you’d think they’d all have been a bit nicer to each other. But then, what exactly would that *mean*??? Gracious, I need to lie down for a bit.

  5. I imagine than in another 50 years, google translate will have improved so much, that it will be a pleasure to read just about anything on the internet, including Urdu. But how very optimistic to think that our descendants would want to read what we have written in 200 years… or even something that Shakespeare had written. We are still in the last throes of the paper age… Thanks, yearstricken. A very beautiful post. I was imagining that I was a fiddle in the hands of one of the musicians.

  6. I’ve often found that when my initial description of someone is that they are “nice” my opinion of them changes over time. They become insipid or boring or vapid. It’s a very scary word.

  7. Margie

    Well done! (As in ‘you done good’ not ‘this is how I want my steak cooked.’
    I feel that the word ‘gay’ has also morphed into something very different than what it was before.

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