Nice and Kind

Be nice.

Or maybe.. Be kind.

But which is it?  Are they the same?  Or are they subtly different?

Say both out loud.

When I say “be nice”–it means something that usually entails a kind of rebuke that implies that someone isn’t being nice–and therefor should change their behavior.  One says this to children a lot.

When I say “Be kind”–something I don’t actually say for some reason (although maybe I should!)–it fills me with a totally different feeling and seems to mean something else entirely.  Specifically, it doesn’t seem to be a rebuke–but more of a simple suggestion that we should be nice to each other.  I might describe it–even though I’m an atheist–as saying that I can totally see Jesus saying “be kind,” but find it to be an odd picture to see him out there saying “Now–be nice people!”

So what is the difference?

Well–if you go to thesaurus.com, it’s interesting to note that the page for nice has a link to kind as a synonym for nice.  However, if you go to the page for kind, you find that nice is not considered a synonym for it–at least not until WAY down on the page…

So what’s going on here. Well.. let’s use a few visuals to spice things up and use our brains in more than just one way.  Using the Visual Thesaurus for “nice”–you get this structure:

 

 

This shows a number of connections to such terms as pleasant, courteous, and gracious, but also to things like dainty, and squeamish.  Another way of visualizing “nice” is to use a word cloud.  I went to Wordle.net and then plugged in the definitions of nice from dictionary.com as well as all the different synonyms that were given to nice at the sister site of thesaurus.com. This is what it gave me:

Now.. a lot of the same concepts/words/synonyms come up in the word cloud that were in the visual thesaurus.  Nice seems to mean agreeable, delightful, pleasant, attractive, friendly, fair, etc.  Nice is polite and attractive.  It has decorum, and it is graceful and charming.

It’s basically the embodiment of Pleasantville, at least before the colorful enlightenment…

But what about “kind”?  The visual thesaurus for kind gives this structure:

This structure does show branching like nice does–but it’s more clustered–and there are some truly big divisions in meaning here.  While nice had dainty/squeamish vs pleasant/good–this has divisions between being charitable/merciful/benign and the technical terms of form/variety/sort.  This split is important and will be dealt with later, but it also shows up within the wordle for Kind, which is below:

Here, we see that kind has the connotations of being loving, friendly, considerate, generous, and neighborly.  It also has a connection to the meaning of “nice” in the sense of being courteous, cordial, and amicable.

But this “politeness” connection to nice is much smaller than the more technical meanings of “kind” that are related to Nature, character, class, sort, and group.

Thus, while being kind may also imply that you are nice–being nice does not seem to carry the full scope of what kind is.

Or.. one might say that kind is a different kind of word, whereas nice is just nice.

As I’m wont to do–I will go get all etymological on your asses and look at the origins of both words to tease out a bit more why these apparent synonyms really have important differences in meaning.

Looking at nice first, one finds out that it was imported from Old French in the 13th century–so during those fun Norman times and high middle ages when the English and French were all up in each other’s shit–and that it originally meant “foolish, stupid, senseless.”  This meaning came from the fact that the French word came from the Latin, nescius–which, itself, came from ne- (not) scire (knowing–it’s the root word in science)–and which meant ignorant.  The rapid development of nice’s change in meaning were pretty remarkable.  It went from meaning “ignorant/timid” in the 13th century “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).

One might speculate–since it isn’t really spelled out here–that nice was more of a courtly/upper class term (coming in with the French Aristocracy that ruled England for a while..)–and that this transition from ignorant to agreeable had everything to do with the  polite and courteous–but also often ignorant and foppish–behavior of courtiers and other noble denizens.  Thus, “nice” has–from its very origins–been a creature of propriety–something that was created and developed in a place of rules–some smart and others not so much–and decorum.  This flavoring has not really left the word–even if, in the last century or so–it has been applied so broadly that it now has little impact, and is even used sarcastically to imply negativity… (Say, “That’s nice!” to someone and they will probably look at you to see if you are making a joke at their expense..)

In contrast, the origin of “kind” is different.  It derives from roots that mean “kind, nature, race,” and it is closely related to the word “kin,” and “kindred,” meaning family.  In German, “Kind” actually is the word for “child,” one might note.

In any case, this origin clearly shows why “kind” has that particular set of technical meanings that are related to nature, sort, class, etc–for that is what the word originally meant.  But interestingly, the association with benevolence came from the association of “acting natural, native, innate” towards one’s own relatives.

Thus–being kind was how you acted naturally with one’s kin or kindred.  The people who loved you (hopefully, at least…).

In this way, it’s not hard to understand how the feel of “kind” is different than that of “nice,” but it is also something that one might contemplate while talking to one’s family and especially with children.

Telling a child to be “nice” to their sibling implies and feels like it means that they should be courteous and friendly to him or her–but it doesn’t say that they should love them or treat them as their own.  It does not, for example, imply that they should like or love them.

Telling them to “be kind” to their sibling, however, does have more of that feeling to it. It tells them that they have a relationship to this person that is important and cannot easily be severed.

Now–there are obviously times when it is more appropriate to just be nice to someone rather than to be kind–for some people will exploit your kindness, whereas being nice more often has some implied limits to it.  We are nice to strangers–but being kind to everyone is not only a hard thing to do, but it might not even be healthy for you in the long run.

Nevertheless, it is worth thinking about the question in each situation of whether it is better to be nice or to be kind–and why….

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About Prof. Woland

I contain multitudes. Come meet us.
This entry was posted in beauty, Human Nature and Mind, Linguistics and Languages, Meaning and Philosophy and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Nice and Kind

  1. Chris says:

    This really intrigued me. I’ve always hated the word nice – it seems so plain, and now quite ironically after discovering its original meanings somewhat derogatory. Like, whenever someone says ‘oh yeah she/he’s really nice’ I think to myself ‘if that’s the best adjective you can come up with they must be boring as hell’. Its funny what you say about ‘be nice’ vs ‘be kind’ though – one has comes off as patronizing and sarcastic, the other sounds like the end of a parable.

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