A Very Nice Dictionary

For part of my “Literary Allusions” series, where I have collected various literary allusions from Mansfield Park, I wrote a post on “Dr. Johnson’s Celebrated Judgment”. In it, I included a link to a page with the definition of the word “nice” from Johnson’s dictionary, for “those who are as curious as I was as to what [his] definition” was. As the page that I linked to is down, I have decided to repost that definition here.


In Northanger Abbey, Miss Tilney refers to Johnson’s Dictionary:

“But now really, do not you think Udolpho the nicest book in the world?” [said Catherine]

“The nicest—by which I suppose you mean the neatest. That must depend upon the binding.”

“Henry,” said Miss Tilney, “you are very impertinent. Miss Morland, he is treating you exactly as he does his sister. He is forever finding fault with me, for some incorrectness of language, and now he is taking the same liberty with you. The word ‘nicest,’ as you used it, did not suit him; and you had better change it as soon as you can, or we shall be overpowered with Johnson and Blair all the rest of the way.”

“I am sure,” cried Catherine, “I did not mean to say anything 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 everything. Originally perhaps it was applied only to express neatness, propriety, delicacy, or refinement—people were nice in their dress, in their sentiments, or their choice. But now every commendation on every subject is comprised in that one word.”

“While, in fact,” cried his sister, “it ought only to be applied to you, without any commendation at all. You are more nice than wise. Come, Miss Morland, let us leave him to meditate over our faults in the utmost propriety of diction, while we praise Udolpho in whatever terms we like best.” (Northanger Abbey, Chapter XIV).

The definition of “nice” and its forms “nicely”, “niceness”, and “nicety” fill more than an entire column of Johnson’s Dictionary—no small accomplishment, considering that a column is nothing short of 13-1/2 inches long, not including the margin. For those who are as curious as I was as to what Johnson’s definition of “nice” is, here it is, complete with all of the quotations:

NICE. adj. [ne_e, Saxon, soft.]
1. Accurate in judgment to minute exactness; superfluously exact. It is often used to express a culpable delicacy.

Such a man was Argalus, as hardly the nicest eye can find a spot in. Sidney.
He that stands upon a slipp’ry place,
Makes nice of no vile hold to stay him up.                                     Sha. K. John.
Nor be so nice in taste myself to know,
If what I swallow be a truth or no.                                               Dryd. Persius.
Thus critics, of less judgment than caprice,
Curious, not knowing, not exact, but nice,
Form short ideas, and offend in arts,
As most in manners, by a love to parts.                                         Pope on Crit.
Our author, happy in a judge so nice,
Produc’d his play, and begg’d the knight’s advice.                                    Pope.

2. Delicate; scrupulously and minutely cautious.

          The letter was not nice, but full of charge
Of dear import.                                                               Shakes. Romeo and Juliet.
Dear love! continue nice and chaste;
For if you yield, you do me wrong;
Let duller wits to love’s end haste,
I have enough to woo thee long.                                                              Donne.
Of honour men at first like women nice,
Raise maiden scruples at unpractis’d vice.                                         E. Hallifax.
Having been compiled by Gratian, in an ignorant age, we ought not to be too nice in examining it.                                                                                Baker.

3. Fastidious; squeamish.

          God hath here
Varied his bounty so with new delights,
As may compare with heaven; and to taste,
Think not I shall be nice.                                                                Milt. Par. Lost.

4. Easily injured; delicate.

          With how much ease is a young muse betray’d?
How nice the reputation of the maid?                                             Roscommon.

5. Formed with minute exactness.

          Indulge me but in love, my other passions
Shall rise and fall by virtue’s nicest rules.                                   Addison’s Cato.

6. Requiring scrupulous exactness.

Supporting an injury done, it is a nice point to proportion the reparation to the degree of the indignity.                                                           L’Estrange.
My progress in making this nice and troublesome experiment, I have set down more at large.                                                                       Newton’s Opt.

7. Refined.

          A nice and subtile happiness I see
Thou to thyself proposest, in the choice
Of thy associates, Adam; and wilt taste
No pleasure, tho’ in pleasure solitary.                                            Milt. P. Lost.

8. Having lucky hits. This signification is not in use.

          When my hours
Were nice and lucky, men did ransom lives
Of me for jests.                                                            Shakes. Ant. and Cleopatra.

NI’CELY. adv. [from nice.]
1. Accurately; minutely; scrupulously.

          These kind of knaves in this plainness
Harbour more craft, and more corrupter ends,
Than twenty silky ducking observants
That stretch their duties nicely.                                         Shakespeare’s K. Lear.
What mean those ladies which, as tho’
They were to take a clock to pieces, go
So nicely about the bride?                                                                           Donne.
He ought to study the grammar of his own tongue, that he may understand his own country-speech nicely, and speak it properly.      Locke.
The next thing of which the doses ought to be nicely determined, are opiates.                                                                                    Arbuthnot on Coins.
At nicely carving shew they wit;
But ne’er presume to eat a bit.                                                     Swift’s Miscell.

2. Delicately.

The inconveniences attending the best of governments, we quickly feel, and are nicely sensible of the share that we bear in them.              Atterbury.

NI’CENESS. n. s. [from nice.]
1. Accuracy; minute exactness.

          Where’s now that labour’d niceness in thy dress,
And all those arts that did the spark express.                                       Dryden.

2. Superfluous delicacy or exactness.

A strange niceness were it in me to refrain that from the ears of a person representing so much worthiness, which I am glad even to rocks and woods to utter.                                                                                            Sidney.
Unlike the niceness of out modern dames,
Affected nymphs, with new affected names.                                        Dryden.
Nor place them where
Roast crabs offend the niceness of their nose.                                       Dryden.

NI’CETY. n. s. [from nice.]
1. Minute accuracy of thought.

Nor was this nicety of his judgment confined only to literature, but was the fame in all other parts of art.                                                                 Prior.

2. Accurate performance.

As for the workmanship of the old Roman pillars, the ancients have not kept to the nicety of proportion and the rules of art so much as the moderns.                                                                                       Addison on Italy.

3. Fastidious delicacy; squeamishness.

          He them with speeches meet
Does fair intreat; no courting nicety,
But simple true, and eke unfeigned sweet.                                            Fairy Q.
So love doth loath disdainful nicety.                                           Spenser.

4. Minute observation; punctilious discrimination; subtilty.

If reputation attend these conquests, which depend on the fineness and niceties of words, it is no wonder if the wit of men so employed, should perplex and sublitize the signification of sounds.                                     Locke.
His conclusions are not built upon any niceties, or solitary and uncommon appearances, but on the most simple and obvious circumstances of these terrestrial bodies.                                                                                        Woodw.

5. Delicate management; cautious treatment.

          Love such nicety requires,
One blast will put out all his fires.                                                 Swift’s Poems.

6. Effeminate softness.

7. Niceties, in the plural, is generally applied to dainties or delicacies in eating.



I got the definitions from a reprint (New York: AMS Press, 1967) of a 1755 edition of A Dictionary of the English Language: in which The WORDS are deduced from their ORIGINALS, and ILLUSTRATED in their DIFFERENT SIGNIFICATIONS by EXAMPLES from the best WRITERS, volume II, by Samuel Johnson. I updated some of the text, dropping the long “s” (ſ), etc.

All images in this post are publicity shots from the 2007 adaptation of ‘Northanger Abbey’ with Felicity Jones as Catherine Morland and J. J. Feild as Henry Tilney. I used these pictures, despite the fact that the delightful scene quoted above was completely eliminated from that adaptation. I obtained the images from Period Films.


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