The Not-So-Nice Evolution Of The Word “Nice”

WATCH: What's So Wrong With "Nice"?

Recently, the phrase nice guy has been used to describe guys who are anything but … nice by current standards.

What’s the origin of nice?


Nice
, it turns out, began as a negative term derived from the Latin nescius, meaning “unaware, ignorant.” This sense of “ignorant” was carried over into English when the word was first borrowed (via French) in the early 1300s. And for almost a century, nice was used to characterize a “stupid, ignorant, or foolish” person.

Starting in the late 1300s, nice began to refer to “conduct, a person, or clothing that was considered excessively luxurious or lascivious.” However, by the 1400s a new, more neutral sense of nice was emerging. At this time, nice began to refer to “a person who was finely dressed, someone who was scrupulous, or something that was precise or fussy.”

By the late 1500s, nice was further softening, describing something as “refined, culture,” especially used of polite society.

The high value placed on being coy, delicate, and reserved was instrumental in the semantic amelioration of the term nice in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

Jane Austen, for instance, mocked this now-positive term in Northanger Abbey (1817) when Henry Tilney teases the naive Catherine Morland for her overuse of nice. He jokes: “… 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.”

What’s the origin of the phrase nice guy?

Over 200 years later, nice still “does (the job) for everything.” It’s a catch-all word for someone or something “pleasant” or “agreeable.”

But, in the popular dating culture, the
nice guy
has become anything but. In fact, it seems nice, harkening back to its root, is becoming a not-so-nice word again. As found on internet forums as early as the 1980s, romantically unsuccessful men have identified as the niceguy, always losing out to their nemesis: the bad boy.

This dating nice guy apparently draws on earlier constructions of nice guy. Predated by nice fellow in the 1800s, the phrase nice guy is found in the written record in the early 1900s.

The expression nice guys finish last—agreeable people who get overpowered by their more assertive counterparts—is credited to Brooklyn Dodgers manager Leo Durocher in 1946.

Nice guy also makes an appearance in no more Mr. Nice Guy, said when someone is throwing down—and implying nice guys are soft and weak. Alice Cooper rocked the saying in his 1973 track “No More Mr. Nice Guy.” A reporter memorably asked it of Richard Nixon about the Vietnam War in 1977.

The language of a nice guy

You’ve likely heard—or maybe even used—the expression he’s a nice guy, but … People may use this phrase as a polite way to decline a potential male partner, whether because they aren’t interested in him or personally don’t find him attractive in some way.

In the 2000s on some feminist spaces on the internet, nice guy started to more specifically refer to an insecure man who expects his kindness to be rewarded with sex. At least that’s in part how the website Heartless Bitches International saw it in their noted 2002 denunciation against the nice guy. This piece helped influence Nice Guy™ and Nice Guy Syndrome, terms for men who think being nice alone entitles them sex.

In current usage, it’s not uncommon to see some so-called nice guys throwing around the term
friend-zone
. A person (usually a guy) can be put in the friend-zone or be friend-zoned when someone he is interested in dating views him as just a friend. While friend-zone can be used in a neutral way, it is often used in an entitled way to question why a person always chooses the “nice guy” last.

Does this mean no more Mr. Nice Guy?

Of course, the term nice guy can still be used non-ironically to refer to a genuinely nice dude, e.g., “Your dad is such a nice guy!” However, it’s important to keep tone in mind as you come across the term nice guy on the internet, especially if it appears in quotes.

As a 2012 piece in Jezebel reminds us: “… rule number one of being a real nice guy is that you never, ever refer to yourself as a ‘nice guy.'”

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