In The New York Review of Books, Andrew O’Hagan suggested that the most popular word in English is nice. He recalled its ubiquity in his British childhood as a catch-all word for “near-approval” in such contexts as a “a nice cup of tea,” a “nice teacher,” and the Prime Minister’s “nice smile.”
The original meaning of nice, however, you would not think very nice if applied to you. It came from 14th-century French and meant “ignorant,” from the Latin nescius. Later it evolved into “stupid, foolish, wanton, lascivious, lewd, slothful, lazy, rare, uncommon, and strange.” Somehow, by the 17th century it meant “cultured or refined,” as well as “delicate and in need of tactful handling, coy, reticent, punctilious, and finicky.” How versatile it has been!
In the first edition of his Dictionary of the English Language, in 1755, Samuel Johnson defines nice simply as “accurate, scrupulous, delicate.” In the 1773 edition, he added a number of meanings with literary attributions: “often used to express a culpable delicacy” (Sidney); “scrupulously and minutely cautious” (Shakespeare); “fastidious, squeamish, refined” (Milton).
But it was someone whom the Oxford English Dictionary identifies as Miss Carter who first wrote the word nice with its modern meaning of “agreeable and pleasing,” in a letter in 1769: “I intend to dine with Mrs. Borgrave, and in the evening to take a nice walk.” Everyone jumped on that nice bandwagon, and by 1837 a Major Richardson wrote of “The Commandant, whom I found to be a very nice fellow.” Later the word also came to mean “polite, proper, respectable, well-bred.”
The Bard of Buffalo Bayou, whose guide in lexicography is not Samuel, but the Runyonesque Nicely-Nicely Johnson, is loath to forgo archaic meanings because he never knows when they may come in handy. He forwarded this verse, which nicely makes his point:
If you say I am nice, you mean I’m cultured and refined,
Polite, well-bred, agreeable, respectable, and kind.
But when I say you’re nice, it’s in quite a different mood:
You’re stupid, lazy, ignorant, lascivious, and lewd.