The changing meanings of 'nice' and 'silly'

Oct 27, 2013

Sometimes saying something or someone is nice is not a compliment.

On this week’s edition of That’s What They Say, host Rina Miller and University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan discuss the words nice and silly, and how their meanings have changed over time.

Although the word nice tends to be a compliment today, this wasn’t true during the 14th century. Originally, nice was borrowed from French, meaning silly or foolish. Years later, nice meant dissolute or extravagant in dress. From there, the word went on to mean finely dressed or precise about looks. And then, precise about looks changed to precise about reputation.

As time goes on, nice meant something like  to have a refined taste. From here, the positive connotations continued with the idea of being cultured, respectable and agreeable. Finally, after this confusing history, nice remains a term of approval today.  

Silly goes the other direction,” Curzan explains. “Silly goes all the way back to Old English, when silly meant happy or blessed.” This positive term quickly changed. Silly became a synonym for innocent or harmless, and then became an adjective for something or someone worthy of sympathy.

Something we feel sympathy for is something that’s weak. And something that’s weak is unsophisticated. Finally, silly went on to mean ignorant and lacking sense.

But these words can still change. Slang words today often assign words with a complete opposite meaning, like bad, sick, wicked and gnarly.

Has a word’s new meaning surprised you? Let us know in the comment section!

-Clare Toeniskoetter, Michigan Radio Newsroom