Words are notoriously slippery customers. They might start life with one or two well-defined meanings, but they often take on additional meanings, and in some cases come to mean the opposite of what they meant originally. This process is referred to as “accelerating fuzziness” by Geoffry Finch in Word of Mouth – A New Introduction to Language and Communication, an interesting book I’m reading at the moment.
Here’s probably the best-known example of an English word that’s undergone accelerated fuzziness:
Nice, which originally meant foolish, currently means pleasant, commendable, kind, friendly, good, satisfactory, subtle, delicate, discrimminating, precise or skillful, is sometimes used to mean fastidious or respectable, and used to mean delicate, shy, modest or wanton. That’s a lot of meanings for such a small word! This is a word I was discouraged from using in English lessons. According to my teacher, nice is far too imprecise because it can mean so many different things. Sometimes there’s no harm in a bit of imprecision though, particularly when asked to give your opinion on something about which you don’t feel strongly either way.
Nice comes from the Old French nice (simple, silly), from Latin nescius (ignorant), from nescīre (to be ignorant).
On an unrelated matter, what non-English-speaking photographers ask people to say when taking a photo? English-speaking photographers often ask people to say “cheese!”, a word that makes you smile when you say it, thanks to the ee sound. What about in other languages?