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Nip is defined differently in two different dictionaries. From OALD, nip is defined as “to give somebody or something a quick painful bite or pinch”, whereas in MWLD, it is defined as “to bite or pinch (someone or something) lightly.”

Which is correct, or can they both be applied?

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Both can be applied. Keep in mind you are citing learner's dictionaries. I think the OALD entry is trying to provide some additional nuance as to how the word is used in some contexts. –  Zairja Oct 12 '12 at 20:44
    
Here are some examples. It's used an awful lot in romance novels - something about that mix of pleasure and pain. Some material may be NSFW. –  Zairja Oct 12 '12 at 20:57
    
I think this is Not a Real Question/General Reference. The fact that one quoted definition happens to include the word painful and the other doesn't is hardly grounds for supposing they're meaningfully "different". OP could easily have looked at a few more online definitions to establish that when nip is used in any context relating to biting, it's always a small/trivial bite. –  FumbleFingers Oct 12 '12 at 21:05
    
And here's an NGram suggesting the sense is shifting, though I could only do it with the noun. –  StoneyB Oct 12 '12 at 21:26
    
@tchrist: I can't think of any "bite-related" contexts where to nip can imply a large, powerful, or serious bite. And I don't see how defining other, non-bite-related, senses addresses OP's "question". btw - I did actually mean small and/or trivial, as you seem to have recognised. Perhaps I should also have included and/or quick. My point being that there's nothing significant about a painful nip as opposed to just a nip. Relatively speaking, a nip is no big deal. –  FumbleFingers Oct 12 '12 at 21:27
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1 Answer

up vote 3 down vote accepted

The two definitions you’ve given both apply, and in fact are really the same word with two slightly different senses. They would both be listed as variants of the same basic word.

Understand that being so short, nip is a very old and very common word that has historically been put to a multitude of unrelated uses in English. The OED lists at least nine different words nip, plus offers it as an archaic spelling for neap, too, plus comes in the gnip and knip variants itself. (Another sense of nip is in catnip.)

For the particular verb nip in question here, the OED offers these distinct senses, amongst many others:

  • trans. To compress or catch between two surfaces or points; to pinch, squeeze sharply, bite.
  • To sever, remove, or take off, by pinching.
  • To defeat narrowly (in a sporting contest). U.S.
  • To check the growth or development of (something), after the manner of pinching off the buds or shoots of a plant. Also with off.
  • Of cold: To affect (persons, etc.) painfully or injuriously.
  • To touch or concern (one) closely; to affect painfully, to vex.
  • To snatch, catch, seize or take smartly. Also with away, out, up.
  • slang. To arrest.
  • intr. To give a nip or pinch; to cause or produce pinching.
  • slang. To move rapidly or nimbly.

A “love nip” is a light touch. It may be related to the use of the noun nip in the game of Cricket:

  • A slight touch or stroke given to the ball by the batsman; a tip.

Or to this other noun use:

  • A small portion, such as may be pinched off something; a fragment, little bit.
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