The not-so-cordial connotations of “nice”
I need to stop asking my kids to be nice to each other. Aside from the desperation in my voice by the time I’m making such a request, the word “nice” itself can actually undermine my real intentions. While people mostly use it to indicate that something is pleasant, or perhaps at least harmless, this is a relatively modern twist on a word that used to be used primarily in a derogatory manner.
Starting from scire
The twisted origin of the word “nice” starts with the Latin word nescius. Nescius basically meant “not knowing,” and so by the 13th century, being called nice in Old French meant that you were foolish and senseless. There was was an element of gentle ignorance in this meaning though, and nice transitioned from stupidity to timidness, then fussiness before getting a bit more of a neutral to positive spin when it came to mean “dainty or delicate.”
So when did it become nice to call something nice? In the 1500s, nice finally took on a more familiar meaning by standing for precision and care, such as when something was “nice and neat.” Since people usually like those traits, you can find nice meaning “agreeable” in 1769, and finally the modern “kind or thoughtful” concept popping up in the 1830s. When laid out like this, it actually seems like a fairly smooth, logical progression from foolish to friendly, but that’s mainly thanks to the clarity afforded by hindsight.
Too many meanings
At this point, “nice” can still be defined by nearly all of its previous meanings, plus a few more tangential concepts as well. Nice can be used to mean lewd, modest, refined, fastidious, trivial, pleasant, enjoyable or even profane, and that’s all before you start layering on the sarcasm. With these many contradictory meanings, it’s obviously not the right thing to request of two children hitting each other in the back seat of the car. Maybe requesting kindness is a better option? Although since that’s coming from Old English’s gecynde, meaning “with the feeling of relatives for each other,” there’s not much hope for arguing siblings since sharing a family is what got them fighting in the first place.
Source: What Does 'Nice' Mean, Anyway?, Word History