Oh! it is a very nice word indeed! – It does for everything. (Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey)
Nice is often held up as an example of semantic drift: its meaning has changed often, and radically, since it entered English in the 13thC from Old French nice “simple, silly, foolish”, from Latin nescius “ignorant”.
Etymonline sketches the sequence, while the Shorter OED’s entry is shown in plain form here with quotations for each sense. The 14th and final adjectival sense in the OED, dating from the early 18thC, is the general-purpose expression of approval we’re most familiar with:
Agreeable, pleasant, satisfactory, delightful, generally commendable; (of food) tasty, appetizing; (of a person) kind, considerate, friendly; iron. (very) bad, unsatisfactory. colloq.
This usage has long been criticised for being vague, overused, and colloquial. Partridge, in Usage and Abusage, called it “an indication of laziness”, while Fowler blamed the word’s own good fortune, and women, for ruining it: “the ladies”, he wrote, had “charmed out of it all its individuality & converted it into a mere diffuser of vague & mild agreeableness.” Woe is mankind!
Nowadays, nice is used mostly in speech and fiction, as the following at-a-glance genre graph from COCA (1990–2011) shows. You can click through for examples in each category.
Comparatively few instances of the word are found in academic texts, and many of these are acronymic or dialogue uses.
Fowler said people limiting nice to its “more proper” (i.e., older) senses were doing the language a favour. He would presumably have sided with Henry Tilney in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey (1817), who teased Catherine Morland over her modern-leaning use of the word:
‘But now really, do not you think Udolpho the nicest book in the world?’
‘The nicest; – by which I suppose you mean the neatest. That must depend upon the binding.’
‘Henry,’ said Miss Tilney, ‘you are very impertinent. Miss Morland, he is treating you exactly as he does his sister. He is for ever finding fault with me, for some incorrectness of language, and now he is taking the same liberty with you. The word “nicest,” as you used it, did not suit him; and you had better change it as soon as you can, or we shall be overpowered with Johnson and Blair all the rest of the way.’
‘I am sure,’ cried Catherine, ‘I did not mean to say anything wrong; but it is a nice book, and why should not I call it so?’
‘Very true,’ said Henry, ‘and this is a very nice day, and we are taking a very nice walk, and you are two very nice young ladies. Oh! it is a very nice word indeed! – It does for everything. Originally perhaps it was applied only to express neatness, propriety, delicacy, or refinement; – people were nice in their dress, in their sentiments, or their choice. But now every commendation on every subject is comprised in that one word.’
‘While, in fact,’ cried his sister, ‘it ought only to be applied to you, without any commendation at all. You are more nice than wise. Come, Miss Morland, let us leave him to meditate over our faults in the utmost propriety of diction, while we praise Udolpho in whatever terms we like best.’
The passage plays astutely on the word’s polysemy, while the reference to Johnson is, well, a nice coincidence. Today I saw a page of Isaac Watts’s Logick which Johnson had marked up to quote in his Dictionary: “Nor have we either Senſes or Inſtruments ſufficiently nice and accurate to find them out.” The word nice, exemplifying one of the usages of which Fowler later approved, was duly underlined.