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Page last updated at 09:59 GMT, Tuesday, 20 May 2008 10:59 UK

What's the point of niceness?

A nice cup of tea
To some a cup of tea is the epitome of niceness

Changing times, charted by the Magazine

The governor of the Bank of England says it's been a nice decade, but is niceness really something to strive for, asks Julian Joyce, in the first of a series of articles about changing times.

The last 10 years have been a "nice" decade, according to Bank of England governor Mervyn King.

He was of course using the word in an acronymous and strictly economic sense, a shortening of Non-Inflationary Consistent Expansion. But the choice of this acronym was deliberate, carrying an undertone related to something more than inflation.

When you describe something as nice, it suggests that you can't think of anything good or bad
Mark Vernon

One newspaper took the chance to ask "So how was the 'nice decade for you?". For another paper, a tabloid, it was as simple as "Decade of good life 'over'". Guardian columnist Alexander Chancellor suggested it had in fact been "rather a nasty decade" as the gap between rich and poor widened.

King's use of "nice" caught the imagination, but each person took the term "nice" in their own way. And it is certainly a word with a high degree of ambiguity in meaning.

For many, "niceness" is a positive value to be striven for. A "nice" person is friendly, non-threatening, and not at all controversial. A "nice" meal involves digestible food, moderately pleasant surroundings, and a conversation that perhaps does not draw the attention of other diners.

Complicated history

For others, that's the reason that they despise "niceness". For them, it carries connotations of a certain indifference to life's rich pageant: an acceptance of blandness; possibly an unwillingness to commit.

That ambivalence is reflected in the origin of the word itself. Look in the Concise Oxford Dictionary and you see "pleasant, agreeable, satisfactory" and "(of a person) kind, good natured". Look in the concise's big brother, the Oxford English Dictionary, and you see an avalanche of meaning.

Lamb in snow
Some people find this sort of thing nice

Dr Philip Durkin, principal etymologist for the OED, describes "nice" as having "one of the most complicated semantic histories in English".

It's a word that has come to mean almost the exact opposite of its first usage 700 years ago. Derived from early French, it originally meant "foolish" or "silly".

Soon, it came to mean "wanton" or "dissolute", mutating by stages to "showy" or "ostentatious", and thence to "finely dressed" or "elegant", then precise (as in "a nice distinction") to "refined" and finally "respectable" or "decent".

Now, says Dr Durkin, the meaning of "nice" has become maddeningly woolly: "It is a catch-all word," he says.

There's a telling bit of humour in Jane Austen when the Northanger Abbey character Henry Tilney ruminates on the word.

"It is a very nice word indeed," he says. "It does for everything... now every commendation on every subject is comprised in that one word."

Debt mountain

And it's apparent that in keeping with the nebulous meaning of "nice" and its convoluted history, there has been a varied interpretation of King's true meaning.

To some, "nice" sums up a decade where rocketing house prices have been accompanied by greater inequality. It was a decade which saw low inflation, but also consumers wading further into debt, with the nation's credit card balance alone at 1.4 trillion.

So in the end perhaps "nice" is an apt description for 10 years of a booming economy that has left many ambivalent.

Estate agents signs
Some have found rising property prices nice

Philosopher Mark Vernon dislikes "nice" for its non-committed nature: "Using the word 'nice" suggests you don't care. It suggests indifference, " he says.

"When you say someone is nice, you are usually saying that they are friendly. But friendliness is passing and transitory, and totally different to the word friendship.

"When someone is friendly it could be they want to get rid of you - and appearing superficially pleasant is the easiest and quickest way of doing that.

"When you describe something as nice, it suggests that you can't think of anything good or bad. It's lukewarm, neither hot nor cold. To say something is terrible is better: at least it shows you have invested thought or energy."

Kathy Lette, author of How To Kill Your Husband (and Other Handy Household Hints), is one of those who regards the concept of "niceness" as far from a universal good.

"Where would the word be if there were only nice people?," she says. "There'd be no infidelity for a start, which means literature and opera would have no plots.

"There would have been no siege of Troy for Homer to chronicle the Iliad. No Anna Karenina. No Emma Bovary. And what would Chaucer and Shakespeare have written about?

"Imagine if Cressida had stayed with Troilus? If Tristan had never played tonsil hockey with Isolde? What would Wagner have done then?"

Below is a selection of your comments.

Interesting people appear on tv reality shows.
Nice people watch tv.
Interesting people stay on the front pages with messy divorces.
Nice people stay with their spouses.
Interesting people take illegal drugs after a night painting the town red.
Nice people take aspirin after an evening painting the kids room magnolia.
Interesting people can be relied upon to do hare-brained schemes at a moment's notice.
Nice people can be relied upon.
Interesting people get the promotions, the publicity and the history documentaries.
Nice people get the stick.
On the whole, I'd get a tad annoyed about this - but I'm too nice.
Andrew, Malvern, UK

I thought the 'nice' in 'nice decade' Mervyn King refereed too stood for: Non-Inflationary Consistently Expansionary
Wormella, Stafford

My brother came to visit me in dublin a few years ago just when we were having a vote on the Nice treaty. In front of him on the bus were two Amercians and one said to the other "look at that a poster saying 'Vote for Nice' - they must be having a referendum - but why would anyone vote against being nice?" It still makes me laugh.
Bob findlay, Dublin ireland

Maybe I'm on my own here, but when I say something is 'nice', it's a positive thing. For a non-commital response, I generally go for 'alright' or 'okay'. "Mmm, that food was nice" implies more than a merely satisfactory meal; "you look nice in that" does not mean "to be honest you could be wearing a bin liner and I wouldn't care any more than I do now". 'Nice' is like the slightly diluted version of 'brilliant' or 'amazing' - we need 'nice', as it would fast become boring seeing everything described with superlatives. Anyway, if everyone in the world was 'nice', perhaps there'd be a lot less greed, aggression and suffering? People might stop thinking only of themselves - wouldn't that be 'nice'?
Doug Daniel, Glasgow, Scotland

Most blokes hate the term "nice" as it usually appears in sentences uttered by the object of one's affections as "you're a nice guy, but..."
Graeme, Dundee, Scotland

When I was at secondary school in the very early seventies, I used the word 'nice' in an English essay and was promptly advised my by teacher that I shouldn't have used it and should have substituted something different if possible. Funnily enough that has always stuck with me and I still always try to use an alternative if I can. Wonder what Bruce Forsythe would think if he had to say 'Pleasant to see you - pleasant!'
Rosie Rose, Kent

Don't mention Kathy Lette again. She made me feel a bit sick. If everyone was nice the world would be a nice place. Instead we are left with the highs and lows of life's rich tapestry. I dream of a world of numbness, no downs, no ups, just average. It would be so, nice.
Russell, Ofuna

I work with "nice" people & it feels totally fake, they make me cringe, to be honest I find it patronising because I know it's all show. To me someone who is genuinely "nice" is a person who acts naturally & tries not to be "nice".
Simon, Lancashire

I remember at school we had to describe the taste of food in words, the one word forbidden was "nice". Which would be rather difficult with nice biscuits of course.
Nich Hill, Portsmouth UK

Nice is comforting. It makes me feel safe. Like having a nice cup of tea. It just is nice. No other word means nice like nice does. Not sure I'd describe the last decade as nice though...
jen , milton, cambs

Actually, brief encounters with niceness are a welcome relief from those pressed for time and uninterested in you in general even if that is their job at that moment in time. If one calls it diplomacy it sounds so much better.
Candace, New Jersey, US

What a nice article. I completely agree though; the phrase "that would be nice" is one of the most irritating sarcastic phrases I know and I'm ashamed to admit that I use it regularly on not very nice people!
Ed, London

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