This word presents some interesting opportunities.
Originally, around the 1300s, it meant ignorant, silly or foolish1, as used in “a nice distinction,” i.e., one so trivial it would only be made by an ignorant person. Chaucer used it as an insult2. Later, through the 1400s and 1500s, it acquired shades of fussy, dainty or delicate, and careful, so that in writings of that time it is often hard to determine which sense was intended3. Though the word is now mainly a synonym for pleasant, this use of the word was marked as “colloquial” by Merriam Webster all the way until 19364.
The implications are obvious: maybe nice guys really do finish last.
But at any rate, it is clearly time for a revival of the word’s original shades of meaning, in all their confusing, ambiguous glory. Offhand, I can think of a couple of modern cases where the word’s full nuance is made use of:
- The schoolteacher in A Year Down Yonder by Richard Peck (particularly as read by Lois Smith in the audiobook) frequently responds to awkward situations with a rather nervous “how…nice.”
- In the Pixar movie Finding Nemo, you will recall, an underwater mine goes off, setting off a chain of explosions. The movie then cuts to a pair of pelicans floating on the water, and a couple of tiny bubbles from the explosion bubble up to the surface just behind one of the birds, giving a rather embarrassing impression. The other pelican utters a sarcastic “nice.” before flying away.