Friday False Friend 4: nice

Quill feather

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, several of which are found in Shakespeare. 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). And there are several 16th-century senses. They include ‘fastidious’, 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); ‘minutely detailed’, when the narrator in The Rape of Lucrece talks about a painting as ‘nice’ (l.1412); ‘subtle’, when Richard accuses Edward of standing ‘on nice points’ (Henry VI Part 3, II.iv.17); and ‘skilful’, when Leonato talks about Claudio’s ‘nice fence’ (i.e. fencing ability, in Much Ado About Nothing, V.i.75). The one thing the word never means is just ‘I like it’.

David Crystal is a writer, editor, lecturer and broadcaster, and is the co-author of the new Oxford Illustrated Shakespeare Dictionary.