If you ever want to say nothing in the most efficient way possible, just say something is “nice.” Ever tried to introduce a significant other to your family, asked your parents afterward what they thought, only to have them respond “oh, she is nice” or, “I thought he was nice“? It’s what you say when you don’t know what to say.
No other word ostensibly expresses contentment and acceptance while also harboring 14 (approximate) subterranean shades of doubt and pessimism. As we know the word today, nice’s dichotomous connotations–its simultaneous positive/negative implications–make it the linguistic equivalent of a rider; a lousy, tag along meaning slapped onto a sterling one.
But how did it get to be this way? How did “nice” become the vaguest of adjectives, its meaning only slightly discernible through its context?
To get to the bottom of it, you have to look at nice’s etymology. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, “nice” has its origin in Latin, coming from nescius (“ignorant, not knowing”), a compound of the stem of scire (“to know”) + the prefix ne- (“not”). The word evolved from there into the Old French nice, niche, nisce (“simple, foolish, ignorant”). By the late 13th century, it was a Middle English word: nice, nyce, nys (meaning essentially “foolish, stupid, senseless”).
It appears a few times in The Canterbury Tales, including the opening of “the Reeve’s Tale”: “Whan folk hadde laughen at this nyce cas.” Here, “nyce cas” refers to the previous story, “the Miller’s Tale,” which is probably best known as the one in which a butt is kissed and someone gets farted on in the face. Chaucer chose to sum up one of his most vulgar and silly stories as “nyce.”
Here’s the full evolution of the “nice”‘s meaning through time:
Pre 1300: “timid”
1400: “dainty, delicate”
Late 14c: “fussy, fastidious”
1500: “precise, careful”
1769: “agreeable, delightful”
1830: “kind, thoughtful”
1926: “”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.”
Jane Austen poked fun at the word’s ambiguity in Northanger Abbey (1817):
“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.”
100 years later, in “Clay,” the shortest story in James Joyce’s Dubliners (1914), the word “nice” is used 12 times, including this passage:
“She used to have such a bad opinion of Protestants but now she thought they were very nice people, a little quiet and serious, but still very nice people to live with. Then she had her plants in the conservatory and she liked looking after them. She had lovely ferns and wax-plants and, whenever anyone came to visit her, she always gave the visitor one or two slips from her conservatory. There was one thing she didn’t like and that was the tracts on the walks; but the matron was such a nice person to deal with, so genteel.”
“Clay”‘s narrator is Maria, an ineffectual, ignorant spinster who makes only the most superficial of observations. During the course of the story, she describes a number of things as “nice,” including the evening and a man’s behavior. Joyce’s depiction of Maria as a sad, simple and sometimes grotesque figure (“And Maria laughed again till the tip of her nose nearly met the tip of her chin and till her minute body nearly shook itself asunder”) is reinforced by her perceptions, many of which go no deeper than seeing things as “nice.” It’s a measure of Joyce’s genius that we could describe Maria as “nice,” and any of the above definitions would be apt.
So, even 200 years ago no one was really sure what the word actually meant. That uncertainty still exists today, as looking up nice in the dictionary yields 17 entries. According to the dictionary, if you describe something as “nice” today, you could be saying something is anything from “subtle” to “virtuous” to “amiably pleasant.”
That’s why today we have a word that has become so muddled in its meaning that its once positive connotation is now dwarfed by its ambiguousness, which ends up having a negative connotation. Let’s face it: no one knows what that guy means when he says something is “nice”, and neither does he. “Nice” is a shrug put into four letters.