All About “Nice”

The meaning of many nouns and verbs (and shades thereof) have stayed largely intact since the days of Old English if not before; examples include agendaechohavemoonmotherwe, and who. But adjectives? Not so much. The word nice rode a linguistic rollercoaster,* even if in the distant past this adjective had hints of its modern-day definitions from time to time: pleasing; polite; agreeable; and well executed (the last as in “Nice  shot!”). Nevertheless, in the main nice bore little or no resemblance to what is now one of the most frequently used used words in our vocabulary. (Note: We could dub words such as these  “rollercoaster words” – but let’s take a  bit of poetic license and choose the more wieldy* “shapehifters.”)**

Definitions From Times Past  

In the 1300s nice generally meant foolish, stupid, or senseless, What else to expect from a word taken from the Latin nescius (“ignorant”) and nescire (“not to know”)? In Medieval times nice  could also mean wanton. Chaucer’s translation of The Romance of the Rose, a sensuous 1285 poem written in Old French, includes the line  “Nyce she was, but she ne [neither] meante Noone harm ne [nor] slight in her entente [intent], but oonley lust & jolyte [jollity].”

A century later the word’s meanings included not only slothful, lazy, and indolent but also strange and rare; the fourteenth century was also when the first positive senses were heard: trim, elegant, or smart (the last in the sense of chic).

In the early 1500s nice came to mean effeminate and unmanly, and it gradually took on shades of shy, reluctant, and unwilling. Early American colonists would have used the word (though not exclusively) to describe something over-refined or luxurious, the latter then meaning excessive, lascivious, or unchaste (see wanton, above).

Our nineteenth-century forebears used nice in still another sense, one that dates from the 1700s: particular, precise, strict, or careful. In 1858 Samuel DuBose, in an address to the Black Oak Agricultural Society of South Carolina, declared that “The whole process of changing indigo from the weeds into the matured dry lumps is a very nice and critical one, requiring attention day and night.” Nowadays this sense of the word hangs on in phrases such as “a nice distinction.”

*Though the adjective wieldy, meaning “capable of being easily wielded,” dates from the fourteenth century, it is now much less commonly used than its back formation unwieldy (“cumbersome”), which came along soon after.

** For more Shapeshifters, click here and here and here.

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