Can 'Nice' Be Nice When It Isn't Precise?

Some words are not so nice as they used to be. ''Facetious,'' I rather suspect, may be one such. The 17th-century antiquarian and would-be biographer John Aubrey used the word frequently as a compliment: One John Graunt, he says, was a ''pleasant facetious companion and very hospitable.'' No slur there. Several of my dictionaries today even define it as entirely positive -- meaning ''playfully jocular and humorous'' or ''witty.'' Only one adds a slight down-note, suggesting it could also mean ''frivolous.''

I don't know about you, but I was always being told as a child not to be facetious!'' I am sure it was meant to stop me from being cheeky or silly, or from taking something lightly that ought to be taken weightily. So where is the dictionary definition that reflects this usage? I can't find it.

And then there is ''botcher.'' Dr. Samuel Johnson says simply in his 18th-century dictionary: ''botcher. A mender of old cloaths; the same to a taylor as a cobler to a shoemaker.'' Nothing but commendable usefulness there -- not a hint of today's meaning: ''botch. To ruin through clumsiness. To bungle.'' The word's origin is a Middle English word meaning to mend. So the word has performed a volte-face and now means more or less exactly the opposite of what it first meant.

There are other words, though, that are nicer than they used to be. ''Nice,'' for instance. Apparently there was a time when this little catchall word not only had a meaning, but had a meaning quite at odds with its modern intimation of some faintly inoffensive sentiment uttered in a mildly unnoticeable manner. ''Have a nice day'' -- oh vacuous valediction of our times!

''Nice'' once meant -- or could mean (since it has ever been a wobbly word meaning-wise) -- such things as ''foolish, senseless or stupid.'' Or it could even mean ''wanton or loose-mannered.'' Nice dress could be extravagant dress. Or the word could be used to mean slothful or overrefined.

En route to today's four flabby letters with their stuffing removed, ''n-i-c-e'' took on various shades of definition over the centuries -- from shy, reluctant, or punctilious to dainty, discriminative, or fastidious.

When I was at school, the English teachers were unanimous in discouraging any use of the word ''nice'' other than its still-useful sense of ''precise, minutely accurate'' -- a nice judgment, say, or a nice pair of scales.

It is intriguing to find that this may well have originated in the opinion of that great word-book man Eric Partridge. In his ''Usage and Abusage,'' first published when I was 7, he writes: ''nice ... permissable -- though an indication of laziness -- in conversation, it is to be avoided in serious writing.''

Actually, ''nice'' did not arrive at its present dilution in our century. Just under 200 years ago, Jane Austen began a novel -- ''Northanger Abbey'' -- in which ''nice'' and ''nicest'' were already treated to all the irony it deserved even then (See excerpt).

That the use of the word survived this astute onslaught only goes to show that the evolution of some words from meaning to ultimate meaninglessness knows no rules.

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