A nice long discussion of nice

I am still reading An Artist in Treason: The Extraordinary Double Life of General James Wilkinson — Commander in Chief of the U.S. Army and Agent 13 in the Spanish Secret Service. At one point, our villain, Wilkinson, is mounting a campaign to discredit a rival general, Anthony Wayne. The secretary of war, Henry Knox, chooses not to reply to Wilkinson's requests for a court of inquiry because:

The complaint "appears to me ... to be the effect of nice [sensitive] feelings than any palpable cause."

I knew that the way we use nice today was not the original meaning. So I went to the OED to research, and I found 11 of its 14 main definitions as an adjective (and dozens of sub-definitions) are now considered obsolete or rare. Eleven! I'm going to share the whole list, but the Online Etymology Dictionary has a good summary (including a quote from an unspecified version of Fowler) if you don't want to wade into that:

  • late 13th century "foolish, stupid, senseless," from the Old French nice "silly, foolish," from the Latin nescius "ignorant," literally "not-knowing," from ne- "not" + stem of scire "to know." "The sense development has been extraordinary, even for an adj." [Weekley] -- from "timid" (pre-1300); to "fussy, fastidious" (late 14c.); to "dainty, delicate" (c.1400); to "precise, careful" (1500s, preserved in such terms as a nice distinction and nice and early); to "agreeable, delightful" (1769); to "kind, thoughtful" (1830). In 16c.-17c. it is often difficult to determine exactly what is meant when a writer uses this word. By 1926, it was pronounced "too great a favorite with the ladies, who have charmed out of it all its individuality and converted it into a mere diffuser of vague and mild agreeableness." [Fowler]

The OED says: "The semantic development of this word from ‘foolish, silly’ to ‘pleasing’ is unparalleled in Latin or in the Romance languages. The precise sense development in English is unclear."

So as not to clog up the main page here, the full set of OED definitions is available after the break.

When writing for the blog, I usually spell out abbreviations from dictionary entries, but there are too many here to do that. Some are obvious, but here is a translation anyway: Obs. (obsolete), fig. (figurative), colloq. (colloquial), esp. (especially),

  • 1a. Of a person: foolish, silly, simple; ignorant. Obs.
  • 1b. Of an action, utterance, etc.: displaying foolishness or silliness; absurd, senseless. Obs.
  • 2a. Of conduct, behaviour, etc.: characterized by or encouraging wantonness or lasciviousness. Obs.
  • 2b. Of a person: wanton, dissolute, lascivious. Obs.
  • 2c. Of dress: extravagant, showy, ostentatious. Also in extended use. Obs.
  • 2d. Of a person: finely dressed, elegant. Obs.
  • 3a. Precise or particular in matters of reputation or conduct; scrupulous, punctilious. Now rare.
  • 3b. Fastidious, fussy, difficult to please, esp. with regard to food or cleanliness; of refined or dainty tastes.
  • 3c. Particular, strict, or careful with regard to a specific point or thing. Obs.
  • 3d. Refined, cultured; associated with polite society.
  • 3e. Fastidious in matters of literary taste or style. Obs.
  • 3f. Respectable, virtuous, decent.
  • 3g. Of a topic of conversation, mode of conduct, etc.: in good taste, appropriate, proper. Usually in negative contexts.
  • 4a. In early use: faint-hearted, timorous, cowardly, unmanly. Later also: effeminate. Obs.
  • 4b. Slothful, lazy, sluggish. Obs.
  • 4c. Not able to endure much; tender, delicate, fragile. Obs.
  • 4d. Pampered, luxurious. Obs. rare.
  • 5. Strange, rare, extraordinary. Obs.
  • 6a. Shy, coy, (affectedly) modest; reserved. Obs.
  • 6b. Shy, reluctant, or unwilling in regard of or to. Also with in or infinitive. Obs.
  • 7. That requires or involves great precision or accuracy. Now rare.
  • 8a. Not obvious or readily understood; difficult to decide or settle; demanding close consideration; intricate (obs.).
  • 8b. Minute, subtle; (of differences) slight, small.
  • 8c. Precise in correspondence; exact, closely judged.
  • 9a. Slender, thin, fine; insubstantial. Obs.
  • 9b. Unimportant, trivial. Obs.
  • 10a. That enters minutely into details; meticulous, attentive, sharp. Obs.
  • 10b. Of the eye, ear, etc.: able to distinguish or discriminate to a high degree; sensitive, acute.
  • 10c. Delicate or skilful in manipulation; dexterous. Also fig.
  • 10d. Of judgement, etc.: finely discriminative.
  • 11a. Critical, doubtful; full of risk or uncertainty. Obs.
  • 11b. Requiring tact, care, or discrimination in handling. Obs.
  • 12a. Minutely or carefully accurate.
  • 12b. Of an instrument or apparatus: capable of showing minute differences; finely poised or adjusted. Obs.
  • 13. Of food or drink: dainty, choice; (later in weakened sense) tasty, appetizing; refreshing, restorative.
  • 14a. That one derives pleasure or satisfaction from; agreeable, pleasant, satisfactory; attractive.
  • 14b. Used as an intensifier with a predicative adjective or adverb in nice and {emem}, sometimes ironically.
  • 14c. Of a person: pleasant in manner, agreeable, good-natured; attractive.
  • 14d. Used ironically.
  • 14e. Kind or considerate in behaviour; friendly (towards others). Freq. in to be nice (to).
  • 14f. Of a (finished) action, task, etc.: well-executed; commendably performed or accomplished. Now freq. in interjections, as nice going!, nice try!, nice work!. Also used ironically.
  • 14g. colloq. nice one: expressing approval or congratulations for something done well. In later use also ironically.