Most people, who speak English, in the world today have a similar understanding of the word nice. We would use it in the sense that something is pleasing, polite, agreeable, or respectable. Someone?s mother might state that ?he?s a nice boy? or ?she?s a nice girl?. For most this would be considered a compliment, unless, of course, your mother is trying to act as a matchmaker. Nice is a word that most people like to have associated with them. Nice people are much more likeable than mean people, and overall, being nice is a very good trait.
Just because being nice is an enviable trait now that has not always been the case. From the first recorded use of the word until today it?s meaning has constantly changed. Over the centuries it has been used as an adjective, an adverb, and a noun. In the Old English Dictionary there are over seventeen recorded definitions of the word nice, and over twelve different spellings of the same word. Some examples of those spellings are nyce,nys,nyse, nies, and nist. The word is definitely still is use today, but there are many uses of the word that have become obsolete over time. Originally, the word was Old French, but when English became the dominant language, the word was both adopted and adapted to our language. Unfortunately, the development of this particular word is extremely hard to track. Unlike some other words of the English language, such as starve, is was not always easy to decide which way a writer meant for the word to be interpreted.
The first recorded use of this word meant ?foolish, stupid, or senseless?. From the years 1290-1557 this was one of the more prevalent meanings of the word nice, especially in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. This meaning greatly differs from todays meaning. It is extremely derogatory. A quote using this particular meaning occurs in the year 1450. ? Lovelich Grail xlii. They sieden he was a fool?and that they sien neuere no nise a man?. In modern English one might say that they said he was a fool?and that they had never seen so stupid a man. According to the Old English Dictionary this first recorded meaning of nice is now obsolete.
The second recorded meaning of the word was in use from the years 1325-1606, and it is also obsolete. During this period the word meant ?wanton, loose mannered, or lascivous?. It could be applied to people, conduct, or dress. Chaucer used this word in the year 1285. ?Nyce she was, but she mente Noone harme ne slight in hir entente, But oonley lust & jolyte?. She was not nice in our sense of the word. We would actually consider her promiscuous or loose. Fortunately, when my grandmother calls my boyfriend a nice boy, she does not infer that he is promiscuous.
As time rolled on the meaning of nice developed from wanton to ?strange, rare, or uncommon?. This meaning was in use from 1413-1555, and it is also obsolete. One of the quotes that the Old English Dictionary uses is from the Dunbar poems xxxv; ?Quhen I awoik, my dreme it was so nyce, Fra every wicht I hid it as a vyce?. A speaker or writer of modern English might say that my dream was so strange and unusual, instead of my dream was so nice.
From this meaning I will skip along to the year 1596 when the word was recorded as meaning ?critical, doubtful, full of danger, and uncertainty?. This meaning was in recorded use until the year 1710, and is now considered obsolete. Shakespeare used the word in this sense in the well known Henry IV. ?To set so rich a mayne On the nice hazard of one doubtfull houre, It were not good?. In this quote it is noticable that the spelling of the word is the same as it is as the English in use today.