This jwpat7's question inspired to me searching something on Jane Austen. Hence, this question.

In a letter dated Saturday (9 January 1796), Austen mentioned:

You scold me so much in the nice long letter which I have this moment received from you, that I am almost afraid to tell you how my Irish friend and I behaved. Imagine to yourself everything most profligate and shocking in the way of dancing and sitting down together. I can expose myself however, only once more, because he leaves the country soon after next Friday, on which day we are to have a dance at Ashe after all. He is a very gentlemanlike, good-looking, pleasant young man, I assure you. But as to our having ever met, except at the three last balls, I cannot say much; for he is so excessively laughed at about me at Ashe, that he is ashamed of coming to Steventon, and ran away when we called on Mrs. Lefroy a few days ago.

Now, let us read the origin of the word "nice".

Oxford Dictionary of English:

nice - origin: Middle English (in the sense 'stupid'): from Old French, from Latin nescius 'ignorant', from nescire 'not know'. Other early senses included 'coy, reserved', giving rise to 'fastidious, scrupulous': this led both to the sense 'fine, subtle' ..., and the main current sense.


nice - late 13c., "foolish, stupid, senseless," from O.Fr. nice "silly, foolish," from L. nescius "ignorant," lit. "not-knowing," from ne- "not" (see un-) + stem of scire "to know." "The sense development has been extraordinary, even for an adj." [Weekley] -- from "timid" (pre-1300); to "fussy, fastidious" (late 14c.); to "dainty, delicate" (c.1400); to "precise, careful" (1500s, preserved in such terms as a nice distinction and nice and early); to "agreeable, delightful" (1769); to "kind, thoughtful" (1830). In 16c.-17c. it is often difficult to determine exactly what is meant when a writer uses this word. By 1926, it was pronounced "too great a favorite with the ladies, who have charmed out of it all its individuality and converted it into a mere diffuser of vague and mild agreeableness."

Considering that Austen wrote this letter on 1796, can someone clarify what Austen intended with the word "nice"?

(I presume it's all explained in annotated versions of some book, but I don't have an annotated copy.)

2 Answers 2


The OED’s definition 14a is That one derives pleasure or satisfaction from; agreeable, pleasant, satisfactory; attractive and the word seems to have been used in that sense from at least the mid-eighteenth century. Indeed, it may even have become a little too popular, if we are to judge by the words that Jane Austen herself puts into the mouth of Henry Tilney in 'Northanger Abbey':

‘I am sure,’ cried Catherine, ‘I did not mean to say any thing wrong; but it is a nice book, and why should not I call it so?’ ‘Very true,’ said Henry, ‘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 every thing.’


I propose these from the OED:

a. That one derives pleasure or satisfaction from; agreeable, pleasant, satisfactory; attractive.

f. Of a (finished) action, task, etc.: well-executed; commendably performed or accomplished.

  • Yes, I think the "well-executed, commendably performed or accomplished" is the right sense here.
    – Jim
    Jun 10, 2012 at 20:04

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