That Four-Letter Word

As feminists seek to reclaim the word ‘cunt’, I should like to reclaim ‘nice’. People kick off when they get called ‘nice’. ‘Nice’ is sometimes used absent-mindedly, to describe someone who hasn’t caused any offence but hasn’t made much of an impression either. My first thought is of that teen movie cliché, where awkward high school boys are called ‘nice’ by girls who don’t want to go to prom with them. These poor young men don’t want to be nice, they want to go out with Jennifer Love Hewitt, be the star quarter-back, drive a convertible sports car, stop masturbating in pies, and so on.

Etymologists might point out that the original meaning of ‘nice’ was not intended to be favourable at all. The first definition in the Oxford English Dictionary is “nice, adj. and adv. 1. Of a person: foolish, silly, simple; ignorant.” But language derives meaning from use, and the OED sometimes fails to capture how we put words into practice. For a start, words I thought indispensible to the English language, such as ‘buttaz’, ‘lashdown’, and ‘cockblocalypse’ don’t even get a mention. And their only definition of the word ‘wasteman’ is “n. Mining a man whose duty is to inspect the waste, and to secure the proper ventilation of the mine.” Common usage clearly indicates that ‘wasteman’ actually means ‘n. one who is indolent, most likely to spend their days smoking marijuana and playing CoD.’ But if our primary use of ‘nice’ is to characterise a good person, someone who is a decent human being, then surely it is a compliment of the highest order.

Perhaps it’s the cynic or mild misanthrope in me who holds niceness in such high esteem; I’ve taken thousands of years of acts of brutality, suffering, corruption, and My Super Sweet 16 as evidence for the need to cherish those who are nice. Humans can be irrational creatures, with wants, needs, hormones and neuroses flailing about wildly in all directions. To be a nice person is to be a considerate person, to recognise the humanity of others. Failure to do this is at the heart of all dickhead behaviour – from being rude to shop assistants, waiters, and taxi drivers, to having affairs with housekeepers, nannies, and ex-Big Brother contestants (especially if you defecate all over the civil liberties of the nation in the process). To push this example to the extreme, I’m pretty sure that a failure to recognise the humanity of others is at the heart of the atrocities committed by the likes of Gaddafi, Mladic, Pol Pot, and so on. ‘Dickhead’ doesn’t even begin to cover it.

If a nice person is someone who acts with moral integrity, then it is one of the most – if not the most – admirable personality traits of them all. As feminists attempt to turn a certain four-letter word into a term of empowerment, so I also champion my own reclaimed use of the word ‘nice’. To put it simply, and to promote the reclamation of both words: the world would be a much better place if there were more nice cunts.

Stephanie Soh

Note from the Editor-in-Chief – The Students’ Union censored the word ‘cunt’ from the print edition of this article on the grounds that the “broader audience” of the students’ union would find it offensive. Considering a few years ago we had a shorter-than-halfpage article approved for the magazine which included the word 11 times and finished with the statement “It’s time to call a cunt a cunt” (page 34), it is not my belief that the broad majority of students will be offended by its use in this article here. Certainly the nature of profanity on campus has not changed to the extent that students now need to be insulated from it, even when it used to refer to specific word-reclamation campaigns. I do not believe using the word ‘cunt’ is any worse than the implied (but apparently acceptable) offence that would be caused by using ‘the c word’ in its stead. It is my belief that the word is used appropriately to frame the subject talked about in this article, and it has been restored in this case. If the use of ‘cunt’ as opposed to ‘the c word’ (which, as already made clear, was deemed acceptable) is offensive to you, you are very much entitled to get in touch and make your views known. Or you can call me a dickhead, because apparently that’s fine.

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3 Comments on this post.
  • Stephanie Soh
    10 June 2011 at 15:15
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    Censorship of Impact can sometimes be a ‘c-word’.

  • Shaun Reeve
    10 June 2011 at 15:21
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    Is being nice, nice?

    Great article Steph, as always, but I have to disagree: the word is in its right place. A world where everyone is nice doesn’t necessarily mean a better world. Sure it would be perhaps more polite, people may even be happier. Angry, disagreeable, volatile and harsh are sometimes the only way to make change. Telling someone that they are screwing there life up or breaking up with an incompatible partner are not nice things to do but perhaps better in the long run. Not that I’m saying you shouldn’t ever be nice but more than that you should be passionate, outraged, and wild, so for now if I meet someone dull and scared to say what they think they will be ‘nice’ and to them I guess I will be a cunt.

  • Stephanie Soh
    13 June 2011 at 19:29
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    We are definitely using the word ‘nice’ in different ways. My primary definition of it – the one I think people mean when they use it – is to describe someone who is considerate of others. This manifests itself on a superficial, social level, to being polite, treating people with respect in everyday interactions, etc. But genuine motivation to do this springs from a more fundamental conviction, which is moral consideration, recognising other’s humanity as I mentioned earlier. So I am referring to a deeply held conviction to do this, rather than merely appearing to be nice in order to e.g. get along in society.

    At the risk of sounding like a pretentious arse, I was inspired by Kantian ethics, where (and I’m summing up and simplifying) Kant takes the Categorical Imperative as fundamental to morality, and from this utmost moral principle believes you can derive how to behave in all and any moral situation. The Second Formulation is: ‘Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end and never merely as a means to an end.’

    Situation often dictates that we can’t always be nice, but we should always question the morality behind our actions. Of course there are other qualities as you mention such as passion, and outrage, and so on which can be valuable in their own right. But if acting in this way clashes with morality – if for instance, acting in a passionate way means that you run the risk of being inhumane, then the positive value of such an act is questionable.

    I’m glad you’ve spotted the holes in my argument – 500 words is definitely not enough to get everything down!

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