Nice Words

Thinking of nice words

One of the adjustments in reading older texts is the shift in meaning that some words have gone through. Awful actually used to mean full of awe, or awe-inspiring— not horrific, as it does now. A similar, though not as radical transition occurred with wonderful. Uh, full of wonder does not describe most people or things which this adjective is often ascribed to. On the C-18L list, a recent discussion regarding wonderful and nice has brought some cute stuff to light. A message there offered this bit, which I want to save:

There is nothing in the least bit astonishing or strange to find scholars forming opinions based in a sound knowledge of textual usage. Johnson thought himself “nice beyond needless scrupulosity” regarding his manners, though some would argue that wiping his hands, dripping with the fat of his favourite roasted duck, was evidence to the contrary. You will read with pleasure Betty Rizzo’s article in the latest _ A of J_. Here she demonstrates that Johnson, and not Faulke Greville, was the better arbiter of nice etiquette. Whether standing in front of a fire and preventing the guests of the Burneys be benefit of the flame, as Greville did, or when scorning just criticism of his book on _Maxims_, poor little girls or eccentric old men could be equally nice.

Keats cautioned that the language must be “kept up,” but it seems a futile effort to defend a perfectly useful word when my spell checker automatically flags “nice” with an “error message”:”Weak modifier [records the nameless wit]. Consider using a more precise expression.” Edmund Malone, however, could shamelessly closed a letter in 1805 with a concern that he “must not venture on another sheet, lest the postmaster should attack my frank with his NICE scales…”

Gavin Murdoch, Toronto, Ontario

This bit reminded me of a suggestion by a writing teacher that we remove “very” from our spell-check dictionaries so that it would be flagged in documents. He told us that it was better to substitute “damned” rather than very, and if it worked, leave it in. Because very, like nice, has become a rather meaningless word.

Another interesting period thought, is to contrast the 18th century method of displaying artwork from floor to ceiling, illustrated nicely by the Courtauld museum’s Art on The Line exhibit with the modernist white wall. Get out the magnifying glass, and look at the artifacts, rather than live with the art. How meaningless is that?