“Nice” has long been an innocuous word, meaning “pleasant, agreeable”. But when you read older books — say from the 19th century — you might come across phrases like “a nice distinction” or “a nice question”. “Pleasant” does not play a role here! Checking into the mammoth, irreplaceable, unabridged Oxford English Dictionary (Second Edition!) yields a gold mine of multiple meanings for “nice”. Even discounting the obsolete ones, there are a lot of them. The proto-meaning is evidently the first, since the OED proceeds chronologically. Can you decipher the connections in the following (chronological) chain of meanings, as ripped off from said OED?
I think the dagger ( † ) means “Obsolete”. At least most of the definitions that have † also have “Obs.”
Below, I have left out multiple dimentsions of the OED entry, comprising the etymology, pronunciation, spellings … And most of all, I have omitted the true glory of the OED: the citations. There will be a quotation from a book, newspaper, etc., conveying the earliest use of a given meaning of the word, followed by other quotes, giving other examples of this meaning through the decades and centuries.
Here comes the OED. The greatest book, ever!
†1. Foolish, stupid, senseless. Obs. (Common in 14th and 15th c.)
a. Of persons.
b. Of actions, etc.
†2. Wanton, loose-mannered; lascivious. Obs.
a. Of persons.
b. Of conduct, etc.
†c. Of dress: Extravagant, flaunting. Obs.
†d. Very trim, elegant, or smart. Obs. rare.
†3. Strange, rare, uncommon. Obs.
a. Slothful, lazy, indolent. Obs. rare— 0.
†b. Effeminate, unmanly. Obs. rare.
†c. Not able to endure much; tender, delicate.
†d. Over-refined, luxurious. Obs.
a. Coy, shy, (affectedly) modest, reserved. Obs.
†b. Shy, reluctant, unwilling. Const. to, in, of, or with inf. Obs.
†6. Phr. to make (it) nice, to display reserve or reluctance; to make a scruple. Obs.
a. Fastidious, dainty, difficult to please, esp. in respect of food or cleanliness; also in good sense, refined, having refined tastes.
b. Particular, precise, strict, careful, in regard to some special thing.
†c. Fastidious in matters of literary taste. Obs.
d. Precise or strict in matters of reputation or conduct; punctilious, scrupulous, sensitive.
e. Refined, cultured.
8. Requiring or involving great precision, accuracy, or minuteness.
a. Not obvious or readily apprehended; difficult to decide or settle; demanding close consideration or thought; †intricate.
b. Minute, subtle; also of differences, slight, small.
c. Precise, exact, fine.
a. Slender, thin. Obs. rare.
†b. Unimportant, trivial. Obs. rare.
†a. Critical, doubtful, full of danger or uncertainty. Obs.
b. Delicate, needing tactful handling.
a. Entering minutely into details; attentive, close.
b. Of the eye, ear, etc.: Able to distinguish or discriminate in a high degree.
c. Of judgement, etc.: Finely discriminative. [“A nice distinction”]
d. Delicate or skilful in manipulation.
a. Minutely or carefully accurate.
b. Of instruments or apparatus: Showing minute differences; finely poised or adjusted.
14. Of food; Dainty, appetizing. spec. of a cup of tea.
a. Agreeable; that one derives pleasure or satisfaction from; delightful. nice girl (of an adult); freq. somewhat derisive.
In common use from the latter part of the 18th cent. as a general epithet of approval or commendation, the precise signification varying to some extent with the nature of the substantive qualified by it.
b. to look nice, to have an agreeable, attractive, or pretty appearance.
c. Kind, considerate, or pleasant (to others).
d. In ironical use. Also nice and.
16. As adv. Nicely. rare.
17. Comb. as nice-conscienced, -eared, -fingered, etc.; nice-becoming, -looking, -spoken; nice-discerning, -judging; nice-driven, -preserved, -spun.