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Defining ‘Nice’ and ‘Good’

I’ve never liked the word nice. It’s a word that is used so often—and for so many things— that it almost lacks meaning. In the 1800s, Jane Austen poked fun at the word in her satire of Gothic literature:

“It is a very nice word indeed! It does for everything. Originally perhaps it was applied only to express neatness, propriety, delicacy, or refinement — people were nice in their dress, in their sentiments, or their choice. But now every commendation on every subject is comprised in that one word.” (Northanger Abbey, 1817)

And over a hundred years later HW Fowler, that grumpy grammarian, continued the hazing:

[Nice] has been spoilt, like CLEVER, by its bonnes fortunes ; it has been too great a favourite with the ladies, who have charmed out of it all its individuality & converted it into a mere diftuser of vague & mild agreeableness. Everyone who uses it in its more proper senses, which fill most of the space given to it in any dictionary, & avoids the modern one that tends to oust them all, does a real if small service to the language. (A Dictionary Modern English Usage, 1926)

When used to describe people, it seems to be used as a high compliment for those whom we don’t know enough about to describe otherwise. ‘He seemed like such a nice boy’, is what the neighbors of serial killers always say. It’s no wonder the word comes from the French meaning ‘clumsy, weak, needy, simple, stupid’ and ultimately from Latin meaning, ‘ignorant, unaware’. Nice is often used as a synonym for good, but the qualities of a ‘nice person’ are often quiet, meek or pitiable which aren’t exactly qualities that scream ‘goodness’ to me.

Good, on the other hand, is a descriptor that is under-used (or at least under-appreciated). Nice is superficial while good takes conviction. Nice is a gesture, but good requires action. Nice is sympathy; good indicates moral fiber. Nice is sentimental, and good is compassionate. Charlie Brown isn’t nice; Charlie Brown is a good man.

Good is love in the fiercest sense of the word. Not in that cliché sense of rainbows and peace signs and a choir of children, but in a sense of righteousness and strength in the face of evil or indifference. Next time you want to compliment someone, consider calling them good rather than nice. But do it on a judgement of character rather than superficialities.