Number one for English language teachers

Word of the week: Nice

Type: Reference material

Are you a nice person? Tim Bowen explains why this popular word hasn't always been a compliment.

The word nice is generally taken to mean 'attractive', 'pleasant', 'friendly' and so on, all very positive qualities. The word’s origins, however, show that it once had a quite different meaning. It is believed to have entered the language in medieval times via Old French from the Latin word nescius, meaning 'ignorant' and originally meant 'foolish' or 'silly'. Thus a nice person was a foolish person rather than an agreeable or pleasant person. Perhaps this is why educational traditionalists in the 20th century discouraged schoolchildren from using nice in written work because it 'had no real meaning'.

It is one of the most widely used adjectives in English and is also found in expressions such as the American phrase 'Have a nice day' and the colloquial British English expression 'Nice one!', which can mean anything from 'Thanks' to 'Well done!' All rather a long way from 'ignorant'.

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