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Is there a difference between "good" and "nice" when talking about people or foods? It seems like people usually say "this spaghetti smells good" and "you smell nice." Does that mean you can't reverse these uses?

You smell so good.

And

This cake smells so nice!

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When talking about the smell of food, we usually use good rather than nice, but when talking about other aromas (such as a scented candle), nice is perfectly fine:

That candle smells nice!

Depending on how you define the words, nice can have five or so definitions, and good more than a couple dozen. So there are bound to be overlapping contexts either word can be used, and some where one word will work better than the other.

I think the essence of nice – at least, as compared with good, in the way the O.P. is inquiring about – is captured nicely in these four definitions found on Wordnik:

  • Pleasing and agreeable in nature: a nice time.
  • Having a pleasant or attractive appearance: a nice dress; a nice face.
  • Exhibiting courtesy and politeness: a nice gesture.
  • Done with delicacy and skill: a nice bit of craft.

On the other hand, good has far more definitions. This makes it a more versatile word, yet more generic as well. With definitions such as these:

  • Being positive or desirable in nature; not bad or poor: a good experience
  • Having the qualities that are desirable: a good exterior paint; a good joke.
  • Of high quality: good books.

With such general definitions of good, it's hard to think of contexts where we could use the word nice, but the word good would not apply. But I'd recommend using nice instead of good if you were describing someone's kindness, politeness, or agreeable nature.

An interesting experiment is to consider these two statements:

Dave was a good man.
Paul was a nice man.

When you hear either of those by themselves, what kinds of qualities spring to mind, and how much do those overlap? To me, the latter focuses more on how the man interacted with acquaintances (Paul was friendly and affable), while the former speaks more about how the man conducted his business (Dave was upright and generous). Yet those two nuances aren't necessarily mutually exclusive – I wouldn't have a problem describing the nice man as good, and the good man as nice.

Sometimes one word will carry a certain nuance or overtone as well. Consider:

Sally looked good in her new dress.
Sarah looked nice in her new dress.

Depending on how they were uttered, the first could be construed to mean that Sally's dress was provocative and had sex appeal, while the word nice would be more apt for a less flirty outfit. Again, though I can imagine someone swapping those words yet preserving the originally intended meanings.

I think such subtle distinctions are too numerous to build an exhaustive list.

  • So I shouldn't say that foods smell nice, right? But what about artificially flavored candies that smell like great-smelling fragrance or foods like strawberries or herbs? – jess May 24 '13 at 12:10
  • Well, if I was talking about food, I'd probably say that the food smells delicious, but some foods do smell nice (like freshly-baked bread, or apple pie). Herbs can smell nice, just like flowers can smell nice ("This fresh basil smells nice," or maybe, "This basil has a nice smell.") A strawberry-scented candle can certainly smell nice, too. – J.R. May 24 '13 at 17:44
  • If a person smells delicious? Does this have a sexy overtone? – learner Oct 22 '14 at 17:51
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    @learner - It could, but not necessarily so. For example, if my daughter used a fruit scented shampoo to wash her hair, I might jokingly say, "You smell delicious!" But those same words could also be used in a more erotic context. – J.R. Oct 23 '14 at 10:51
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I'd use either good or nice when saying something like that to my wife or, if I had one, girlfriend. But I would say only that "The {cake / curry} smells good". I think of smells good as an elided form of "smells as if it will taste good". I don't know how other native speakers think about this, though.

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    There is a distinction somewhere here. I think if you were at a party and someone said "You smell good" to your wife, then (assuming you suppose him to be a native speaker) you might well feel more affronted/concerned/jealous than if he'd said nice. (You kinda can't help thinking: "Good for what?" :) – FumbleFingers May 24 '13 at 4:02
  • @Fumble: Yes, well, other men aren't supposed to be saying things like to women not their wives or girlfriends. Do that in the wrong culture or society & you'll "wake up dead". I've heard women say that to other women, but they're probably more likely to say things like "That perfume smells {nice/good}": most women, unlike most men (IMHO) aren't on the make most of the time. In Taiwanese Chinese, however, there's no distinction: "Hao shang" (好香) literally means "good aroma"; that's what my wife says after I've showered with a particular body wash or when a meal smells good. – user264 May 24 '13 at 4:45
  • I'm repeating my question from the comments under another post. If a person smells delicious? Does this have a sexy overtone? – learner Oct 22 '14 at 17:52
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    @learner It definitely could, but I think that a lot of the overtone would come from how the person is speaking. It could have some other meanings, some of them unfortunate (like if the speaker happened to be a cannibal). – snailboat Oct 23 '14 at 2:44

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