The word nice has come a long way since it entered our language. I know what you’re thinking: as compliments go, nice can be a pretty tepid one. But it’s a whole lot more complimentary than it used to be. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) includes seventeen definitions (plus several sub-definitions per definition). Nine of those seventeen definitions are listed as obsolete. That’s a lot of linguistic change. The specific change at work in nice through the centuries is the linguistic process known as amelioration, by which a word with negative associations takes on more positive associations.
In its earliest recorded usage, in the fourteenth century, nice meant “foolish, stupid, senseless.” Ultimately the word derives from the Latin nescius—ne (not) + scire (to know, as in science). So, literally, to be nice was to be unknowledgeable. The OED lists an example from c.1350: “Now witterly ich am un-wis & wonderliche nyse” (Now certainly I am unwise and wondrously nice.) Another example from 1387 describes the effect that a charlatan had on a susceptible woman: “He made the lady so mad and so nyce that sche worshipped hym as the greitest prophete of God Almyghty.”
From “foolish, stupid, senseless” it was a short step to “wanton, loose-mannered, lascivious”—that is, to a specific kind of foolishness and senselessness. Chaucer described a character thus in 1366: “Nyce she was, but she ment Noone harme ne slighte in hir intente, but only lust and jolyte.” (“Nice she was, but she meant no one harm or slight in her intent, but only pleasure and jollity.”)
Another early meaning of nice was “slothful, lazy, indolent.” Again, it appears that the general idea of foolishness is being applied specifically to a specific kind of foolishness. One application of this usage, according to the OED, basically a sub-definition, was “not able to endure much; tender, delicate.” In a 1562 medical text William Bulleyn remarked on the frequency of stomach trouble, “soche be the weake, feble, nise stomackes of many.” I especially like Gervase Markham’s 1648 description from a gardening book: “The Bee is tender and nice, and only lives in warm weather.” That kind of delicacy shaded over into the idea of over-refinement and luxuriousness: “We spoile our children’s maners, by our overmuch cockering and nice education” (Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, 1651).
In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, nice took on a whole cluster of meanings connected to the more artificial aspects of social graces. It came to mean “coy, shy, (affectedly) modest,” as in, “She is the nicest creature in the world of suffering [allowing] her perfections to be known” (1665). Nice also came to mean fastidious or difficult to please with regard to food, literature, manners, etc. Samuel Johnson wrote of a mind “that becomes nice and fastidious, and like a vitiated palate.” William Cowper wrote, “Men too were nice in honor in those days, and judg’d offenders well” (1784).
You may have noticed that we’re now a long way from the idea that to be nice is to be stupid or lacking in knowledge. A person who is overly fastidious with regard to, say, literature or theology or any other branch of knowledge could be foolish, but not stupid or empty-headed. Also, this idea of fastidiousness and excessive precision and over-refinement opens the possibility that the adjective nice could be used to describe precision and refinement in a more positive sense. And that is what happened.
In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, nice began to pick up more positive usages, even though didn’t shed all of its negative ones. In 1794, a Mrs. Radcliffe wrote, “conversation awakened the nicer emotions of her mind, that threw such a captivating grace around her.” This kind of positive use becomes more and more common through the nineteenth century. It is at this point that we start seeing definitions and usages of the word that look more familiar to us.
I have already mentioned that nice often meant “overly precise” in the sixteenth century. The use of nice to mean “precise” in a neutral or positive sense wasn’t unheard of even that far back; the OED lists two such examples from the sixteenth century. But the positive usage becomes more common (and the negative usage declines) as the centuries pass. In 1776, for example, Adam Smith wrote, “A carpenter seems to exercise rather a nicer and more ingenious trade than a mason.” You are familiar with this definition of nice as “precise” through such phrases as “nice and neat” or “nice and tight.”
Another definition of nice from the OED is “not obvious or readily apprehended; difficult to decide of settle; demanding close scrutiny.” Which, it seems to me, is the exact opposite of stupid or lacking in knowledge. This usage survives in the phrase, “a nice distinction.”
By the eighteenth century, people were referring to appetizing food as nice, as in, “That’s a nice piece of fish,” or “Brussels sprouts are nice when you roast them.” This is effectively the modern-day definition of nice, except that this usage is limited to food. From the OED I get the impression that over the course of the eighteenth century, the usage generalized to be applied to anything (or anyone) that is pleasing or delightful.
The definition of nice that would be first in a modern dictionary is Definition 15 in the OED! “Agreeable; that one derives pleasure from; delightful…kind, considerate, or pleasant (to others).” We’ve come a long way from “foolish, stupid, senseless.” According to the OED, nice has been in use as a “general epithet of approval or commendation” since the latter half of the eighteenth century.
But it doesn’t take general epithets long to become so general that they start to lose their meaning (see awesome). Etymonline.com notes that one of Jane Austen’s characters was complaining (and also mansplaining) of its overuse as early as 1803:
“I am sure,” cried Catherine, “I did not mean to say anything wrong; but it is a nice book, and why should I not 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.”
You may have noticed that for the first few centuries after its arrival, nice gained meaning by getting more specific. From “foolish, senseless” it went on to describe specific kinds of foolishness (lasciviousness, indolence) and evolved from there by collecting additional specific uses (from indolence to luxury to fastidiousness to precision…) But in the eighteenth century, nice hit a tipping point: instead of adding (and losing) specific meanings, it grew by becoming more general. Ironically, a word that once meant “overly precise” soon lost much of its force by becoming so general that it had no precise meaning. In Fowler’s English Usage (1926), Fowler patronizingly described nice as being “too great a favorite with the ladies, who have charmed out of it all its individuality and converted it into a mere diffuser of vague and mild agreeableness.”
But nice survives, because mild agreeableness and general pleasantness survive. When you’re deep in your enjoyment of a piece of pie, you may be in no state to come up with the most precise descriptors of your pleasure or your pie. “That’s a nice piece of pie” is an altogether appropriate compliment to the chef, even if it’s less than adequate for your restaurant review.
And think how often you are called upon to say something pleasant even though you have no real information on which to base an informed judgment. Let us all give thanks for the phrase “They seem nice.”
I have found the phrase “That’s a nice baby” to be especially useful; people expect you to compliment their babies even though most babies have accomplished exactly nothing.
I realize that a society needs more than vague and mild agreeableness. But it doesn’t need less than that. So raise a glass to nice, that diffuser of vague and mild agreeableness. There. That’s nice.