The Change of Meaning of the Word “Nice” Essay

September 29, 2020 by Essay Writer


Admittedly, all languages develop throughout centuries due to various reasons. The English language has been influenced by many factors. Thus, people always “invent” or simply borrow new words, and forget some old words. This is the case with a word which is now widespread.

The word “nice” was borrowed in 13th century from French and gradually it changed its meaning. Interestingly, first the word had a meaning of “foolish”, than acquired meaning “peculiar” and from the eighteenth century it changed its meaning to “good”, “lovely”. The present paper traces the change of the meaning of the word and touches upon the peculiarity of the use of the word which was not widespread in times of Chaucer and Shakespeare, but has become “popular” nowadays.

Material and Method

The present paper is based on such primary sources as Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice and this year (this month) newspaper article taken from The New York Times. These sources help to trace the change of the meaning of the word “nice” from the thirteenth century, throughout sixteenth century, up to nowadays.

Admittedly, when reading works taken from such reputable sources, it is possible to analyze the meaning of the word and the frequency of its use by people living in different centuries. The paper also refers to secondary sources which consider the change of the word.


After having considered the use of the word by Chaucer it turned out that the author uses the word four times. At this point it is necessary to point out that the book by Chaucer and Hopper (1970) contains considerable part of the original collection of Chaucer’s tales. It is possible to state that the word was used quite frequently. The word is used in the meaning of “foolish”, “absurd” and “delicate” (in this case it is an attribute to the word “conscience”).

After analysis of Shakespeare’s (1750) play it turned out that the word nice was used only once. The meaning of the word in the play was “peculiar”. Notably, there was no negative connotation. The word meant positively peculiar, specific. Noteworthy, the play is quite a long piece of writing, so it is impossible to assume that the word was that widespread at that time.

Finally, the article by Krugman (2011) contains three words “nice”. The meaning of the word is “good”, “pleasant”, “positive”. Noteworthy, the article is not very long, so it is possible to state that the word is frequently used nowadays.


Before considering certain examples of the use of the word it is necessary to consider some theoretical information. Thus, according to Algeo and Pyles (2009) the word “nice” originates from Latin “nescius” which meant “ignorant”.

Reportedly, H. Stephens “informs” that the Old French word “niais” had a meaning of “foolish”, so Chaucer used the word “nice” in this meaning, and in the other meaning peculiar (The Canterbury Tales, 1775, p. 209). As far as modern meaning is concerned it “means no more than ‘pleasant’ or ‘proper,’ having become an all-purpose word of approbation” (Algeo and Pyles, 2009, p.214).

Thus, Chaucer used the word in the meaning it had in the language from which it was borrowed. Since the word can be found quite frequently in Chaucer’s work it is possible to assume that it was quite widespread in the contemporary English language. The word borrowed from French was “popular” and it was used in the same meaning.

It is possible to state that even now new words are borrowed from other languages. These words are used excessively due to their novelty. People reveal their knowledge and being aware of the latest trends by using such words. However, time goes by and the word can be forgotten or it can change its meaning. This was the pattern for the word “nice”.

In the end of the sixteenth century the word is not used so frequently. For instance, it appears once in Shakespeare’s play (1750). More so, the word changed its meaning. Shakespeare uses the word “nice” in the meaning of “peculiar”, “specific”, not “foolish” or “absurd”: “In terms of choice I am not folely led / By nice direction of a maiden’s eyes” (Shakespeare, 1750, p. 18).

Finally, nowadays the meaning of the word “nice” can be illustrated by Krugman’s (2011) article where he uses the word frequently in the meaning of “pleasant”. Now not all people know that the word which is used hundred times a day is French. It is perceived as an English word which “nicely” conveys idea of pleasantness and goodness. It is possible to state that the word obtain its second life with the new meaning.


On balance, it is necessary to point out that the word “nice” has a long story and it changed its meaning throughout centuries. The change of meaning was accompanied by the change in frequency of the word’s use. Initially, it was used frequently, later it was used occasionally, and nowadays it is a very widespread word.

Reference List

The Canterbury Tales. (1775). London.

Chaucer, G., Hopper, V.F. (1970). Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (Selected): An Interlinear Translation. New York, NY: Barron’s Educational Series.

Algeo, J., Pyles, T. (2009). The Origins and Development of the English Language. Boston, MA: Cengage Learning.

Krugman, P. (2011, April 16). Civility is the Last Refuge of Scoundrels. The New York Times. Retrieved from

Shakespeare, W. (1750). The Merchant of Venice. London.

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