December 23, 2013

Case File #013.12.23: NICE

The history of nice is arguably one of the most circuitous of any word in the English language. Ultimately, the adjective's roots wind back to the Latin nescius, which meant “unknowing” or “ignorant.” When the Latin word passed into Old French during the twelfth century, however, its form quickly changed to nice and its meaning shifted slightly to “stupid or foolish.” Middle English borrowed the adjective directly from the Old French in the late thirteenth century, but during the early fourteenth century, English speakers started using it to mean “shy or timid” instead of “stupid,” and by 1380 it had come to mean “finicky or fastidious.” Less than thirty years later, nice was being used to mean “dainty or delicate,” and in the early sixteenth century, that meaning gave way to the sense of “careful or punctilious.” It was around 1770 that the word took on its now familiar secondary meanings of “fine (as in well-executed or well-made),” “fitting or appropriate,” and “pleasant or agreeable,” but it took another sixty years or so for the adjective to finally acquire its current primary meaning of “kind, caring, or thoughtful.”

©2013 Michael R. Gates

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