Many words have changed their meaning over the centuries, but none so significantly, widely, and often as nice. Today, the word most often means pleasant, good-natured, attractive, and has a positive connotation. (At least in most contexts; describing a potential romantic interest as “nice” can be damning with faint praise.) But it was not always so. Over the centuries, the meanings of nice have ranged widely, and include: silly, wanton and lascivious, ostentatious and showy, scrupulous, fastidious, cultured and polite, virtuous and respectable, cowardly, lazy, tender and delicate, strange and rare, shy, undecided, subtle, precise, thin, unimportant, sensitive, and require tact.
Nice was brought across the English Channel with the Normans in 1066. It was originally an Anglo-Norman and Old French word meaning silly, simple, and unsophisticated. Ultimately, it comes from the Latin nescius, meaning ignorant. It took a few centuries for nice to filter down from the French-speaking nobles to the Anglo-Saxon populace, but by 1300 English speakers were using the word to mean foolish or ignorant.
Then at the close of the fourteenth century, nice had a semantic explosion, coming to mean a great variety of things, some of them contradictory. Almost without exception, the English writers of the fourteenth century could also write in French and Latin and were certainly aware of what nice meant in Anglo-Norman. But when writing in English they were liberated from the word’s French meaning and they could use it to mean whatever they wanted. In English, nice could, as before, be used to mean silly or ignorant, but it could also mean wild and primitive, sluggish and slothful, cowardly and timid, fastidious, dainty and delicate, strange, clever and cunning, extravagant, and wanton and sinful. All these senses are first recorded in the 1390s. Many of these senses are now obsolete, but some survive—nice can still mean fastidious and precise, for example—and most lasted alongside one another for several centuries.
Often the same writer would use the word in contradictory senses. Chaucer, for example, uses nice to mean foolish in The Squire’s Tale, V(F) 525–29:
Til that myn herte, to pitous and to nyce,
Al innocent of his crowned malice,
Forfered of his deeth, as thoughte me,
Upon his othes and seuretee,
Graunted hym loue.
(Until my heart, too merciful and too nice, all innocent of his sovereign malice, frightened that he should die, so I thought, upon his oaths and surety, granted him love.)
And in Troilus and Criseyde, 3:1340–42:
That ech from other wenden ben biraft,
Or elles—lo, this was hir mooste feere,
That al this thyng but nyce dremes were.
(That each thought they were torn from the other, or else, and this was her greatest fear, that all this thing was but a nice dream.)
But Chaucer uses the word to mean clever and cunning in The Summoner’s Tale, 3(D) 2224–27:
Who sholde make a demonstration
That every man sholde have yliche his part
As of the soun and savour of a fart?
O nyce, proude cherl, I shrewe his face!
(Who should prove that every man should equally have his part of the sound and odor of a fart? O nice, proud churl, I curse his face!)
The most common sense of nice in use today, that of pleasant, agreeable, attractive, is a relatively late addition to the language, not appearing until the mid-eighteenth century.
“nice, adj.,” Oxford English Dictionary, third edition, 2003.
“nice (adj.),” Middle English Dictionary, 2001
“nice1, nis, nise” The Anglo-Norman Dictionary, first edition, 1992.
Copyright 1997-2016, by David Wilton