Almost everyone knows what “nice” means, right? After all, it is used very often. You might be a bit surprised at what it originally meant, though.
The word has many current meanings. Among these are agreeable, kind, accurate, precise, pleasing, refined, respectable, proper, virtuous, and neat. In fact, many of these words are commonly used as synonyms for ‘nice’.
None of these are even close to what the word originally meant, however.
‘Nice’ has been in use since the 1200’s and the word is from Middle English. The Middle English came from French, which came from Latin. The original Latin term was ‘nescius‘. Nescius means…are you ready for this?…ignorant or stupid. The Middle English ‘nice’ meant much the same thing as the Latin word it came from; stupid or foolish.
What all of this means is that if you say that someone is a nice person, though you almost certainly mean it in a complimentary way, you are actually calling them stupid, ignorant, or foolish.
The Old French word also meant foolish or simple, and I personally have to wonder if there was a hidden meaning behind the French naming one of their cities Nice. I’d probably research it in more depth to see if I could uncover that, but I don’t want to. I’m just too nice.
I remember being told – at the age of 7 – in English classes never to use the word if it could possibly be avoided, on the grounds that it was too imprecise a word and it did not actually tell you anything about the thing or person being described. This was advice that I have followed ever since!
Then along came Bruce Forsyth with his famous catchphrase “Nice to see you, to see you nice”, which rather confirmed my long-held dislike of the word!
Good to know the origins of the word, I wonder why people began to use it as a compliment.
That is something I simply don’t know. The word certainly didn’t mean the same thing that it means today.