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The word "nice" tends to be used in rather a wishy-washy sense these days. In general use it tends to mean anything that is satisfactory.

But what are the origins of this word? What did it originally mean? Why has the meaning changed so much through the years?

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    No idea "nice" could have such an "unnice" history! – Thursagen Jun 24 '11 at 10:47
  • @Trifle: and at the same time it's a very nice history! – Joachim Sauer Jun 24 '11 at 10:52
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    @Trifle. Think I could give you the history of "unnice" though. It starts and ends here. :-) – Urbycoz Jun 24 '11 at 10:55
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Interesting question indeed!

It originally meant 'foolish, stupid':

1250–1300; Middle English: foolish, stupid

From Etymonline.com:

late 13c., "foolish, stupid, senseless

The following excerpt explains how the meaning of "nice" became changed so much:

"The sense development has been extraordinary, even for an adj." [Weekley] -- from "timid" (pre-1300); to "fussy, fastidious" (late 14c.); to "dainty, delicate" (c.1400); to "precise, careful" (1500s, preserved in such terms as a nice distinction and nice and early ); to "agreeable, delightful" (1769); to "kind, thoughtful" (1830). In 16c.-17c. it is often difficult to determine exactly what is meant when a writer uses this word.

Its meaning changed to become "agreeable" over a long period of time, and now, the reason for its connotation(wishy-washy sense) in modern times:

If any criticism is valid, it might be that the word is used too often and has become a cliché lacking the qualities of precision and intensity that are embodied in many of its synonyms.

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It really depends on what you mean by "originally". We can trace the word back at least as far as a Proto-Indo-European form "skei" meaning 'cut', 'split' (i.e. about 5,000-6,000 years ago). This developed into various Latin words, including "scindere" (from which we get the English word "rescind", and which has become "scinder" in French still meaning something like 'to divide'), and also 'scire' ("to know" < "to split/distinguish truth from falsehood"). In Latin, 'scire' could be combined with the prefix 'ne-' ("not"), to give 'nescire' ("to not know about", "be ignorant of"), leading to the adjective 'nescius' ("ignorant"), which was the word eventually borrowed into English and which then gradually changed its meaning.

So if your notion of "original" is "originally appeared as a word that was ostensibly 'English'", then the meaning was probably close to 'ignorant', 'foolish'. But the origin of the word can be traced back much further than that. But then, there's nothing hugely magical linguistically speaking about Proto-Indo-European (or Latin, for that matter)--they're just arbitrary points (or rather, vaguely-bounded time periods) in history when we're able to posit something about the form of language that existed. Presumably the Indo-European form "skei" that we believe existed around 6,000 years ago itself developed from something, but we can't say exactly what. So in a strict sense, we can't say that this or anything else was the "original" form/meaning.

This is why arguments of the "well, this word really means X because that was the original meaning" type are generally spurious.

As to why it changed its meaning: well, in a sense, this word hasn't done anything remarkable. It's the normal state of affairs for words to change their meanings over time, and largely the more remarkable cases are words that have (e.g. because they're highly technical words usually consulted alongside their original, arbitrary intended interpretation whenever they are used) retained their 'original' interpretation.

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This is what the NOAD says:

ORIGIN Middle English (in the sense [stupid] ): from Old French, from Latin nesciusignorant,’ from nescirenot know.’
Other early senses included [coy, reserved,] giving rise to [fastidious, scrupulous] : this led both to the sense [fine, subtle] (regarded by some as the “correct” sense), and to the main current senses.

But the OED says that the meanings transformation is not very clear:

The precise development of the very divergent senses which this word has acquired in English is not altogether clear. In many examples from the 16th and 17th centuries it is difficult to say in what particular sense the writer intended it to be taken.

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Interesting.

An entry on amelioration (which is the upgrading or elevation of a word's meaning, as when a word with a negative sense develops a positive one.) specifically mentions nice as an example that has changed meaning since its original

•"The word nice is a classic example of amelioration . . .. This is a rare occurrence, compared with the opposite process of pejoration, or downgrading.

"The meaning of nice when it first appeared in Middle English (about 1300) was '(of persons or their actions) foolish, silly, simple; ignorant, senseless, absurd.'

" . . . A shift away from disparagement began in the 1500s, with such meanings as 'requiring or involving great precision or accuracy.' . . .

"The movement toward amelioration reached its apex in the 1800s with such meanings as 'kind and considerate, friendly.'" (Sol Steinmetz, Semantic Antics: How and Why Words Change Meanings. Random House, 2008)

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History of nice:

Nice is a highly polysemous word. A polysemous word has more than one meaning.

Origin: Ne- (not) + scire (know, same root as 'science') -> nescire (not know) -> nescius (ignorant) -> nice (careless, clumsy, stupid - late 13c). In 14th century, its meaning was foolish, ignorant and stupid ---> semantic change (amelioration) ---> fastidious (late 14c) -> precise, careful (1500's) -> agreeable, delightful (1769) -> kind, thoughtful (1830's) -> pleasant, agreeable and then respectable (19c) -> pleasant and other positive meanings (20c onwards).

Nice and another English word nescience (meaning: ignorant) have the same origin (nescire).

Brief answer:

It was borrowed from French, meaning silly and stupid. Years later, nice meant dissolute or extravagant in dress and fashionable. From there, the word went on to mean finely dressed or precise about looks. And then, precise about looks changed to precise about reputation. As time went on, 'nice' meant something like to have a refined taste. From here, the positive connotations continued with the idea of being cultured, respectable and agreeable.

Finally, after this perplexing history, 'nice' remains a term of approval today. We use it all the time to compliment people.

It entered Modern English through Old French and Middle English from Latin so its meaning has changed over time. This is because of semantic change.


Explanation and citations:

From Merriam Webster:

It is a bit difficult to say with much certainty what the earliest meaning of nice was in Modern English, since by the end of the 14th century there were already a number of different senses of the word — M-W

Some other meanings of 'nice':

  • 'Nice' has meant 'tarty':

    Sometimes it went further than this pejorative sense - it had the sense of the modern British slang 'tarty', or '[appropriate to] a woman of promiscuous sexual behaviour'.) — AWE

  • 'Nice' has meant 'fastidious' (around 1500):

    Its second main meaning was that of 'precise' or 'fastidious' — AWE

  • 'Nice' has meant 'dissolute':

    May we not this day read our sin in our punishment? O what nice and wanton appetites, what curious and itching ears, had thy people in the dayes of plenty? - John Flavel, Husbandry Spiritualized, 1674 — M-W

  • 'Nice' has meant 'chaste':

    “But Reddy Wheeler knew Daisy. We were properly introduced. It was quite all right!” “Yes, but nice girls don’t do this sort of thing, you know--unchaperoned, and so late at night, and all that.” - Fred Jackson, “Young Blood,” Munsey’s Magazine, 1917 — M-W

  • 'Nice' has meant 'finicky':

    By the 16th century, the sense of being "very particular" or "finicky" had developed — Word Central


From Merriam Webster:

It's easy to tell which sense is being used in which instance, in part because nice has not been much used to mean “dissolute” or “wanton” in the last several hundred years. But even with modern senses we generally are able to use context to distinguish between shades of meaning. For instance, one of the following uses of nice would be defined as “demanding or marked by great precision,” and one would be defined as “unpleasant - used ironically.”

The difference is not enough to prove confusing, it is true, but it exists, and in nice measurements would have to be allowed for. —Electrical World, 16 Sept. 1911

“I give you my word they did not speak to each other during that dinner, nor would Louise stay to the cotillon. Charlie danced it with Frankie. Nice state of affairs, isn’t it?” I felt myself grow weak. —Lillian Lida Bell, The Love Affairs of an Old Maid, 1893

M-W


Why did the meaning of 'nice' change:

The meaning of nice changed because of a common phenomenon called Semantic change.

Semantic change

In semantics and historical linguistics, semantic change refers to any change in the meaning(s) of a word over the course of time. Also called semantic shift, lexical change, and semantic progression. Common types of semantic change include amelioration, pejoration, broadening, semantic narrowing, bleaching, metaphor, and metonymy.

1. Amelioration:

When a word with negative meaning develops a positive meaning, the process is called 'amelioration'.

The literal meaning of ameliorate is to make something unpleasant better.

Example: The best example of amelioration is 'nice'. 'Nice' had negative meanings (ignorant, stupid and silly in 14th century), now it's used in positive sense (pleasant, excellent, admirable etc).

The opposite of amelioration is pejoration

2. Pejoration:

When a word with positive meaning develops a negative meaning, the process is called 'pejoration'.

The literal meaning of pejorate is to make something worse.

Example:

A very common example of pejoration is the word 'gay'.

'Gay' originally meant lighthearted and joyous in 13th century. In 14th century, its meaning was bright and showy. It acquired negative connotations (immorality) around 1637. Presently, it's used to mean homosexual. See how it developed negative meaning. It's called pejoration.

References:

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I cannot improve upon Decapitated Soul's excellent answer, but I also cannot resist including a snapshot of a moment in the evolution of "nice" from "to have a refined taste" to a more general term of approbation. This exchange from Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey (written in 1803, published 1818) shows the hero teasing the (less educated) heroine for her use of "nice":

“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."

It's kind of nice to consider that even Henry was mistaken to think his preferred meaning was the "original" when his definition was already a considerable way through its semantic wanderings!

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