Laurie Barber's My Word: the origin of the word nice

A new meaning: Laurie Barber has trawled through his dictionaries to uncover the changing meaning of the word 'nice'.
A new meaning: Laurie Barber has trawled through his dictionaries to uncover the changing meaning of the word 'nice'.

The word nice was once a term of abuse.

That’s why people urged me and others like me not to use nice.

But I have to admit that nice is one of those words that is changing its meaning to something, well, nice. Has it completed the change?

Even as a child, I wondered why people urged me never to use nice. I had thought it was a good word.

But then I grew up. I still thought it was a good word.

Nice, according to John Ayto, went from meaning stupid to meaning pleasant.

Nice started life, in the English language, in the 13th century as a term of abuse. It came from the Latin word nescius, meaning ignorant or not knowing. Nescius was ne meaning not and scire meaning to know.

My big dictionary says the first use of nice in print was in 1290, but obviously it was in use before then.

Soon after, it came to mean over-refined, but not in a complimentary sense.

The first English dictionary, that Robert Cawdrey published in 1604, defined nice as being French to mean “slow, laisie”

Depending on what you read, it meant lazy, dainty, reserved, loose-mannered, strange, effeminate, difficult to please and so many other things. So, if you said “he’s a nice man” what did you mean? Did you mean you liked him, or you considered him to be a dirty old man?

Furthermore, the Oxford dictionary rates nice as one of the words that have the strongest change in meaning.

My Macquarie dictionary conveys the “modern:” meaning of nice, such as pleasing, or agreeable. This came into fashion somewhere around the second half of the 18th century.

My Collins describes some people being nice as admirable, but the meaning number nine in the Collins book says nice means that you do not like something. It goes on to refer to an exclamation, such as you ran into the back of the driving instructor’s car, resulting in the exclamation “nice one”.

I think nice changed its meaning because some people, people who went with the flow, were considered shy and not willing to create trouble.

Eric Partridge in Usage and Abusage says nice is permissible in casual conversation , but “is to be avoided in serious writing”. 

The late Stephen Murray-Smith quotes “she has a nice house” and gives by way of explanation “it’s alright for her, but I have somewhat higher standards”.

Murray-Smith says a nicety is not a pleasantry but a subtle point.

These days, be careful about describing a man as being a nice man. He might not take it as you meant it.

lauriebarber.com;lbword@midcoast.com.au.