Q: We say things like “nice and short” and “nice and sweet” all the time, but what exactly is the meaning of “nice” in this context? Is it simply an intensifier? Or does it have something to do with “nicely”?
A: As you suggest, the adjective “nice” is indeed an intensifier—a word that adds emphasis—when used in a phrase like “nice and short.”
“Nice,” as the Oxford English Dictionary explains is “used as an intensifier with a predicative adjective or adverb in nice and—.”
Examples in writing date back to the late 18th century in OED citations, but the usage is undoubtedly older in ordinary speech. Here are the two earliest published examples Oxford gives:
1796: “Just read this little letter, do, Miss, do—it won’t take you much time, you reads so nice and fast.” (From Fanny Burney’s novel Camilla.)
1800: “Skipping … is a very healthful play in winter; it will make you nice and warm in frosty weather.” (From The Infant’s Library, a collection of miniature books for children.)
Sometimes “nice” is used ironically in such phrases, as the OED points out. Oxford gives examples from fiction for “nice and ill” and “nice and sick.”
“Nice” is heard so commonly these days—in this and other usages—that it almost escapes our radar. (When was the last time someone invited you to “Have a nice day”? Did you even register the word?)
“Nice” has done so many jobs over the centuries and meant so many things that it’s simply worn out.
English acquired the word around 1300 from Anglo-Norman and Old French. But its roots are in the Latin adjective nescius (ignorant, unknowing). We had a posting a couple of years ago that discussed the not-so-nice origins of “nice.”
Since it entered Middle English, “nice” has meant ignorant, foolish, cowardly, absurd, lazy, dissolute, lascivious, ostentatious, extravagant, elegant, precise, effeminate, meticulous, fussy, refined, strict, cultured, fastidious, virtuous, respectable, tasteful, proper, fragile, precise, pampered, strange, shy, modest, reluctant, complicated, subtle, exact, insubstantial, trivial, attentive, sensitive, dexterous, critical, risky, and attentive. And that’s only a summary!
Most of those meanings are now obsolete or rare, and for the last couple of centuries the word has meant what it does today: satisfactory, pleasant, attractive, good-natured, friendly, kind—in short, pleasing.
That’s a lot of work for such a small word!
As the OED says, “The semantic development of this word from ‘foolish, silly’ to ‘pleasing’ is unparalleled in Latin or in the Romance languages. The precise sense development in English is unclear.”
This may be an understatement. In fact, the OED notes, lexicographers have found that in some 16th- and 17th-century examples it’s hard to say what the writers meant by “nice.” That’s what happens when a word loses its specificity.
Check out our books about the English language