Take the 2-minute tour ×
English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

The term "in good nick" meaning "in a good condition" came up in conversation and I realised I had no idea where it came from.

Searching online seems surprisingly fruitless- there are several roots for nick as it is used in different contexts but none of them to explain why it came to mean "condition."

The closest thing I can see is "in the nick of time" where nick derives from the same root as "notch" or "niche", but that doesn't seem to connect directly to a mark of quality or condition unless it comes from marking notches to measure time (which the "nick of time" seems to derive from) and means "in good condition for its age" which is an interesting conjecture with, so far as I can tell, no substantiating evidence.

Does anyone have any clear origin for the term?

share|improve this question
3  
FYI: AFAIK this phrase is entirely unknown in AmE. That would tend to indicate a likely origin between the late 18th century and the 20th. –  T.E.D. Oct 7 '13 at 16:12

5 Answers 5

up vote 6 down vote accepted

Andrew Leach's answer has the OED's first quotations [parenthetically in 1884, and] in 1890. Their first quotation for "in good nick" is The English dialect dictionary from 1905.

Australia, 1880s

I found earlier uses in the Trove archive of Australian newspapers, the earliest in The Referee (Sydney, NSW, Thursday 13 January 1887):

Hutchens and Samuels.

(By "Shoespike.")

Next Monday Hutchens will run his first match in Australia. Malone's was to have been the first, but the aboriginal party were found willing to risk a century, and a match was quickly made. Samuels has not had much time for preparation, but is quietly doing work on the Agricultural Ground. He looks if anything fine, and not so strong and in such good "nick" as when he won the Botany. As an aboriginal Samuels is a first-rate runner, and about the best of them. I question, however, if he is class enought to stretch the world's champion and anticipate Hutchens to win comfortably. I may add I do not expect even time to be broke.

It was used in other Australian newspapers in the late-1880s to describe sporting participants: wrestlers, racehorses, footballers, boxers rowers.

New Zealand, 1870s

However, it can be found earlier in New Zealand's archive of newspapers, Papers Past, and again in a sporting context. First in Sporting Notes by "Sinbad" in The Press (Volume XXIX, Issue 3973, 18 April 1878, Page 3), describing racehorses:

York, the representative of the Bay stable, is big enough and strong enough. Those who ought to know say he has plenty of pace, and will certainly be there or thereabouts at the finish. He is without doubt in good nick, and will have a good man on his back, so I think he will run into a place, and if either Natator or Merlin are out of it he may be labelled dangerous.

(The article also uses the similar phrase in good form.) In good nick shows up in many other editions of The Press and also The Obago Witness in the late-1870s, all applied to racehorses.

An origin?

Another meaning of the noun nick dates from 1824 and, according to the OED:

10. An instance of cross-breeding, esp. one which produces offspring of high quality. Cf. nick v.2 7b.

You could say of animals or racehorses, as in this from an 1870 Australian newspaper:

It is possible, however, as the mare is a daughter of Melbourne, that Stockowner may prove a good nick.

From the same article, as a verb:

I see that a certain sire and dam "nick" well, no matter how wrong it may be for them to do so, as far as the relationship of their families is concerned, I prefer to trust to their progeny, rather than to thoso bred on a correct theory without practical results.

So perhaps as the term for successfully crossed animals, specifically racehorses, was applied to racehorses generally in good form. This was then used for sportsmen in general before being used for anything in good condition, or conversely, as "in poor nick" for something in bad condition or form.

share|improve this answer
1  
Very interesting, good answer! –  glenatron Oct 7 '13 at 15:40
    
I've sent these antedatings to the OED. –  Hugo Oct 8 '13 at 6:16
1  
As was previously mentioned, it strikes me very much as an offshore term from my cisatlantic position. I do happen to recognize it, but I’ve lived in the UK and still digest a great deal of UK content, which is rare in my countrymen. I wouldn’t expect them to know what it means; there’s a strange attraction to nick as in pilfer or purloin that surely doesn’t apply but which I could easily seeing someone thinking might be related. –  tchrist Oct 13 '13 at 14:56

OED doesn't seem to know. It lists this use in classification IV., "Other uses":

16. colloq. Condition, state. Chiefly in in good (fair, etc.) nick : in the specified state or condition.

[1884 R. Lawson Upton-on-Severn Words 39 ‘Up to dick’, or ‘nick’..= in first-rate condition; to perfection.]
1890 J. D. Robertson Gloss. Words County of Gloucester 103 Nick,..condition, fettle.

...which would indicate it's a West Country dialect word. As such, it's almost certainly a lot earlier than 1880 — just it was first recorded around then.

Swindon, a major railway town, is not all that far from Gloucester, and it's possible that "in good nick" spread from the West Country with the railway, which would also tie in with the first recording of the use.

OED notes the word first appeared in Middle English, but they have no certain etymology.

Etymology: Origin unknown; compare nick v.2 Several of the senses of the noun (in branches I.) correspond closely to senses of the verb (compare branches I. and II. s.v.), but are older; the noun may in reality have priority, and it may be accidental that the oldest recorded senses of the noun are attested slightly later than the first attestation of the verb. No etymon suggests itself, and although there is an obvious resemblance of form and meaning in the earlier word nock n.1, which has the parallel senses ‘notched tip of a bow’ and ‘cleft in the buttocks’ (compare sense 2b), it is not easy to see how they might be related.

The OED asserts that nick and niche are "almost certainly not related".

share|improve this answer
    
Do you think it may be related to 10. An instance of cross-breeding, esp. one which produces offspring of high quality? –  Hugo Oct 7 '13 at 13:55
    
Might be related. But you can have "in poor nick", although "nick" appears to have meant that cross-breeding was successful. I suppose a couple of hundred years might account for that. We'd need evidence of usage prior to 1850, which is short supply. Could try Google Books, I suppose... –  Andrew Leach Oct 7 '13 at 14:02
    
Not much in Google Books either. –  Andrew Leach Oct 7 '13 at 14:23
    
Have a look at my answer: the earliest I found in Australian newspapers applied it to wrestlers, racehorses, footballers, boxers rowers in the late-1880s. The earliest in New Zealand newspapers applied it to racehorses in the late-1870s. Perhaps that ties it back to the cross-breeding nick. –  Hugo Oct 7 '13 at 15:38

The relation of "nick" to naked seems relevant (and untouched upon in this conversation). Such a sense could apply here as "essence" or "core truth"; and thus correlate and conflate with "nick" as "notch": as "in the notch" or "in the groove" or "in the slot".

Shakespeare, around 1590, has Nick Bottom the Weaver as a comic character. "Bottom" was a term for what would with industrialization become the weaver's bobbin- a nicked or notched stick of wood around which yarn was wound. Bottom also (or thus) served metaphorically as "stamina" (an available reserve); this sense, though now becoming archaic, was used especially to describe (like "nick") horses and their abilities and congress; and appropriately Nick Bottom was the man who, in Midsummer's Night Dream, was turned into an ass (donkey); and who, thus transformed, became a queen's (temporary) lover.

Along with some possible implications of the word "nick", the relationship between "bottom" and "ass" (anatomical) has been explored at length here The Name "Bottom" in A Midsummer Night's Dream

It may also be that "Nick" serves in this instance as a synecdochical form of "neck"; the specific "nick-neck" conveying a sense of carriage in general; certainly how a horse holds its head is an essential indication of its strength speed and general conduct.

HEAD & NECK The head and neck are important in determining the athletic ability of the horse. A supple horse uses its head and neck as a rudder and stabilizer. Free head and neck movement has a profound influence on the horse’s way of going. from Horse Conformation Analysis

share|improve this answer
    
I think you're onto something there. It might be that "nick" in middle English was pronounced /naɪk/ (spelling was more phonetic back then) so Naik Bottom makes the pun more apparent. –  Mari-Lou A Dec 9 '13 at 7:14
1  
That last point is very strong. Given that the oldest statement in Hugo's answer is from New Zealand and how the NZ accent now tends to shorten vowels and render them a little more nasal it would be a way shorter phonetic step from "neck" to "nick" with that accent now. Obviously, I have no idea how it sounded 150 years ago, but I can certainly see how that jump could arise- maybe even just as a mistranscription of a word. –  glenatron Dec 9 '13 at 20:07

Nick, in this meaning, has no relation with "notch", nor the slang word for "prison".

I suggest that it could be connected with the ... nickname of the demon, from the French Nicolas.

For Christians the demon, or Demon to be polite (one never knows, I could have to meet him one day, and he could bear some grudge despite my "How do you do ?") is the Evil. How on earth - if I may speak so - could you be in good terms with him ?

It is due to the etymological meaning : the Latin daemon, the Greek δαίμον design a spirit, good or evil. Socrates said a (good) demon was always going along with him.

So, "be in good nick" could just mean that you are protected by a pagan guardian angel ?

share|improve this answer
5  
I don't suppose you have any sources for this? Or is it just speculation? –  MrHen Oct 7 '13 at 13:24

On the website, The Phrases Finder a reader offers this plausible explanation:

nick -- informal, shape. "...2. In the sense of 'physical condition.' Usually in the phrase 'in the nick,' sometimes 'in good nick,' meaning 'in the pink.'" From "British English: A to Zed" by Norman W. Schur (Harper Perennial, New York, 1987).

RE: in the pink. From the archives: In the pink signifies a state of well being; good health. The pink here has nothing to do with colour, rather with the same source as pinking scissors. They are both based on the old English pynca meaning "point", hence "peak" or "apex". Shakespeare in Romeo and Juliet (II, iv) speaks of "the pink of courtesy"

In French the slang expression, (c'est) nickel, means to be in perfect condition and nickel-chrome means super so who borrowed from whom and when, might lead to its true origins.

From The Chambers Dictionary, under nickel, there is the German word, Kupfernickel meaning niccolite, "... from Kupfer copper and Nickel a mischievous sprite or goblin, because the ore looked like copper ore but yielded no copper."

From a PDF file entitled, The Nickel Industry in Germany I found the following:

In 1751 Mr. Fredrik Cronstedt from Sweden was able to extract copper from Kupfernickel and obtained a white metal that he named after the German word Nickel (similar to Old Nick out of German mythology) 4 German mythology) . In the 18th century the Neusilber or "German Silver", a copper-zinc-nickel-alloy, was invented as a substitution for expensive sterling silver for usage in household and industry.

A gleaming, white metal such as nickel silver, suggests to the eye, something that is new and in outstanding condition. It is possible that people shortened the word nickel to nick, which therefore led to the expression in good nick.

EDIT

In looking for instances with the phrase "in nick" I found this song, THE MAD MERRY PRANKS OF ROBIN GOOD-FELLOW, dated 17th century and attributed to Ben Jonson. The prose was published by The Sporting Magazine in 1824.

enter image description here

"All in the nick" could be the origin of "all in the nick of time", however I wouldn't exclude the possibility of it meaning "all in good nick". However, what I found even more interesting was that the protagonist, Mad Robin, is riding a horse and then this "song" was much later published in a sporting racing journal. Consequently, it seems likely that @Hugo's supposition is probably the most correct one.

So perhaps as the term for successfully crossed animals, specifically racehorses, was applied to racehorses generally in good form

share|improve this answer
1  
Interesting, I have never heard the phrase as in the nick at all- in fact, in colloquial English that would mean "in prison." I have only ever heard of it as "in good nick". That would make sense with the nickel suggestion - is there any evidence for the phrase "in good nickel?" –  glenatron Oct 8 '13 at 9:23
    
@glenatron As I mentioned in my answer, the French have the expression "nickel" meaning excellent, perfect etc. and le travail nickel means a job done perfectly. forum.wordreference.com/showthread.php?t=130939 –  Mari-Lou A Oct 8 '13 at 9:36

Your Answer

 
discard

By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.