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Word nick seems to be used to describe many things. According to the dictionary, the main meanings are:

  • a small notch, groove, chip, or the like, cut into or existing in something.
  • a hollow place produced in an edge or surface by breaking, chipping, or the like.
  • a small dent or wound.

And other similar meanings, both nouns and verbs.

In British English (mostly slang level), word nick may also refer to a prison or a police station, but at the same time it may also mean to steal. While I can make a guess that a prison cell is a small hollow place (of sort) and hence further a police station may be called a nick, I'm puzzled as to the meaning to steal. How could it have come about?

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OED says slang (orig. Austral.). A prison; a lock-up, esp. one at a police station. Also: a police station. First citation 1882 Sydney Slang Dict. 6/2 Nick (The), gaol.. The verb sense of To go off or away surreptitiously, hurriedly, etc. is also listed as orig. Austral. from about the same period. The (slang) "steal" sense trans. Originally: to trick, cheat, or defraud; is first cited 1576. – FumbleFingers Apr 25 '13 at 13:18
nick (v.) 1520s, "to make a notch in," from nick (n.). Sense of "to steal" is from 1869, probably from earlier slang sense of "to catch, take unawares, arrest" (1620s). The precise sense connection is unclear. Related: Nicked; nicking. ( – Kris Apr 25 '13 at 13:48
"Since the early 19th century, the verb “nick” has also meant to steal or pilfer. Here’s an example from an 1826 collection of English and Scottish poems: “Some there ha’e gotten their pouches picket, / Their siller an’ their watches nickit.”" (…) – Kris Apr 25 '13 at 13:50
I am from Ashfield district in the East Midlands and we said 'nick off' or run away – user98254 Nov 18 '14 at 23:03
possible duplicate of Etymology of "nick" in, in the nick of time? – Tom Au Nov 18 '14 at 23:26

3 Answers 3

up vote 1 down vote accepted

Nick refers both to a prison cell and to the process of a police officer arresting someone. I suspect that the slang nick meaning to steal led to this meaning as arresting is taking someone away which, in turn, led to the slang for a prison cell.

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I agree, the two sides (to steal and to arrest) are probably related. However did this slang meaning of the word originated from its main meaning of "small hole, crack, chip, etc."? If yes, then how? – Aleks G Apr 25 '13 at 13:11
@AleksG: It comes from "Nick of opportunity" (we still have "nick of time" which derived from this phrase) - originally meaning "a very short space of time", but from which "[it was] tayk'n in the nick o' opportunity" (meaning taken quickly, esp. stolen) and shorter "tayk'n in the nick" and later "nick'd" were derived. – Matt Apr 25 '13 at 13:53

There are also two additional distinct uses of nick in British and Australian English that I can think of, namely:

  1. Meaning "condition", as in "It's in good nick"

  2. In the phrase "Nick off", both an interjection telling someone to go away in a mildly pejorative fashion, and a verb. As FumbleFingers pointed out above, this is probably related to the "Prison" meaning.

I cannot speculate as to the etymological origins of these two uses, only to attest that in my experience (as a native speaker of British English) that they are quite commonly employed.

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Online etymolgy suggests nick may come from French niche and that:

Nick of time is first attested 1640s (nick of opportunity is 1610s), possibly from an old custom of recording time as it passed by making notches on a tally stick, though nick in the general sense of "critical moment" is older (1570s, Hanmer, who adds "as commonly we say") than the phrase.

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