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Nick of time

Q From Jack Latimer: What is the origin of the phrase in the nick of time?

A It’s definitely one of the stranger idioms in the language. The language experts are sure that nick here is the same word as that for a small cut or notch.

Sometime round about the 1580s the phrase in the nick or in the very nick began to be used for the critical moment, the exact instant at which something has to take place. The idea seems to have been that a nick was a narrow and precise marker, so that if something was in the nick it was precisely where it should be.

It seems that users of the expression pretty soon afterwards found this association of ideas needed some elaboration, so started to add of time to the expression, and that’s the way it has stayed ever since. These days, the phrase more usually refers to something that only just happens in time, at the last possible moment.

There are a number of other expressions involving nick, as in yet another name for the devil (this time from the personal name Nicholas). There are the British slang terms for theft (“my car’s been nicked!”) or for a police station (“the nick”), or the act of being arrested (“you’re nicked!”). There’s also the American sense of defrauding a person of money, and the Australian ideas of moving quickly or furtively, or of being in the nude (“in the nick”). Most of these, except perhaps the last, come from senses of nick that may derive from an old and defunct colloquial sense of seizing an advantage or grabbing an opportunity, which isn’t far from the idea of being in the nick of time.

But the history of the word is confused and complicated (there’s also the animal breeders’ sense of a mating that has had excellent results, for example, as well as the old sporting sense of a winning throw at dice) to the extent that you’d need half a book to explain them all.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 15 Jun. 2002

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
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Last modified: 15 June 2002.