Imagine you are at the Westminster festival in London in May of 1306 to watch King Edward 1 knight his son, Edward of Caernarfon. You need to be a man for this scenario to work, so if you are a female, imagine that your take-home pay is as much as your male counterparts.
Everyone imagined up? Good, let’s proceed.
While you are enjoying your third cup of ale, a big, burly man calls you nice. Enraged, you try to punch him in the jaw, which is both stupid and foolish because he is twice your size. Your aggression proves to everyone within bowshot that you are, in fact, nice. Back then, nice meant stupid or foolish.
But don’t feel bad. Edward of Caernarfon, destined to sit on the throne in 1307 as Edward II, was deposed after twenty years for being nice, too. The nice things he did included military defeat at the hands of the Scots, murderous revenge, scandals, plotting, and lavish living, among other royal entertainments.
For several hundred years, that four-letter word nice insulted and disparaged people by calling them foolish, wanton, lascivious, fastidious, cowardly, and showy. Then by the late 1700s, nice changed its wicked ways, stopped going into bars to start fights, got a respectable job as an bookkeeper, and starting calling people refined, cultured, and respectable. Suddenly nice was finding other people agreeable and pleasant.
Some words at 700 still look hale and hearty; nice does not. His hair is thinning, his belly’s thickening, and his feet are flattening. He mumbles a lot and has begun to call everything and everyone nice. It doesn’t feel right to me, however. It’s a little too nice, if you know what I mean (and I think you do). Do you hear that hint of sarcasm when he speaks? “How nice,” he says in his treacly voice, when he really means, “How mediocre or bland.” It’s a short road from bland to vapid to stupid.
Maybe he’s making a comeback as an insult instead of a compliment. It would make for what some may call “a nice story.”