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?

  • 1
    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. Apr 25, 2013 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. (etymonline.com/index.php?term=nick)
    – Kris
    Apr 25, 2013 at 13:48
  • 1
    "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.”" (grammarphobia.com/blog/2008/08/…)
    – Kris
    Apr 25, 2013 at 13:50
  • I am from Ashfield district in the East Midlands and we said 'nick off' or run away
    – user98254
    Nov 18, 2014 at 23:03
  • 1
    possible duplicate of Etymology of "nick" in, in the nick of time?
    – Tom Au
    Nov 18, 2014 at 23:26

6 Answers 6


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.

  • 1
    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, 2013 at 13:11
  • 2
    @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, 2013 at 13:53
  • Per the OED, the sense of 'to arrest' predates 'to steal' by centuries.
    – lly
    Jun 1, 2018 at 17:48

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?

It's an unclear mess.

The OED lists all these senses of 'nick' under "nick, v.2", which is the verb form of "nick, n.1", meaning 'tally' and 'tally mark'. The noun and the verb show up together in the mid-15th century with no obvious etymon but rapidly spread to cover senses ranging from female anatomy to screwtop notches to precise moments to winning throws in dice games.


The illicit senses of 'nick' start in the later 16th century in reference to what was later 'chiseling': cheating or defrauding debtors and the poor for one's own benefit (sense III.15.a).

How doth he nick the debter now by hault exacting wayes.

The OED considers Sven's earliest quote from Fletcher's Mad Lover to be an example of this sense, not anything about theft.


From there, it was used by the early 17th century in reference to a rapid strike, catching someone unaware (sense III.16.a). This was used in reference to gulling marks but also catching the conmen at their own game.

We must be sometimes wittie, to nick a knave.

That's the sense that eventually became the British slang for 'arrest'.


It seems like a sense of successful and skillful theft, hitting at precisely the right moment, should have arisen pretty naturally from all those other senses, but the OED gives the first clear citation of 'nick' meaning 'to rob' (III.16.b) as David Anderson's 1826 Scottish poems:

Some there ha'e gotten their pouches picket,
Their siller an' their watches nickit.


Similarly unexpectedly late is the use for jail (sense 15), which shows up in Australia in a book of Sydney slang from 1882:

Nick (The), gaol.

This doesn't have any relation to cave or hollow; it's much more likely a loconym created out of the action of arrest. Personally, though, I'll maintain the head canon that some literate degenerates derived it via "Nick, n.2" and "Old Nick, n." from "Old Iniquity", apparently a set figure in early modern morality plays.


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.


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.

  • Re: a derivation from niche: "...almost certainly unrelated" (OED).
    – lly
    Jun 1, 2018 at 17:54
  • 'Nick of time' is also attested from c. 1610 in Day's Festivals: "...Even in this nicke of time, this very, very instant..."
    – lly
    Jun 1, 2018 at 17:56

According to J.E. Lighter, Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang (1997), nick as a verb has three underworld senses—two that that go back to seventeenth-century England:

nick v. 1. Esp. Und[erworld]. a. to rob. [First two cited occurrences:] 1617 in F[armer] & H[enley, Slang & Its Analogues (citing Fletcher's Mad Lover),] V 37: You men of wars, the men of wars will nick ye: For starve nor beg they must not. 1727–28 J. Gay [Beggar's Opera] in F & H V 37: He was nick'd of three pieces of cambric before he could look off. ...

b. to cheat; defraud. [First two cited occurrences:] 1676 Wycherley Plain Dealer III: I ventured my last stake upon the squire to nick him of his mother. 1746 in Dugaw Warrior Women 53: Slap then we're nick'd of 20,000 Spouses. ...

c. Orig. Und[erworld]. to steal; pilfer. [First two cited occurrences:] 1869 in Partridge D[ictionary of] S[lang and] U[nconventional] E[nglish] I bolted in and nicked a nice silver teapot. 1873 Hotten Slang Dict. (ed. 4): Nick,...Also to steal. To be "out on the nick" to be out thieving. ...

Lighter dates the police arrest sense of nick to the seventeenth century as well:

2. Esp. Police. to catch a person (esp.) to place under arrest; apprehend. [First two cited occurrences:] 1622 Fletcher & Messinger, in OED: We must be sometimes witty, To knick a knave. 1700 in F & H V 38: Well madam, you see I am punctual—you've nicked your man, faith.

Unfortunately Lighter doesn't offer any suggestion as to why nick came to be used for rob, cheat, steal, or arrest the first place. John Ayto & John Simpson, The Oxford Dictionary of Modern Slang (1992) gives the meanings "To arrest; to imprison" and "To steal" for nick, but then offers this rather unsatisfying historical gloss on the term:

From earlier senses, to catch, to take unawares; ...

Likewise, Tony Thorne, The Dictionary of Contemporary Slang (1990) has this etymological note in connection with nick in the sense of "arrest":

Nick was a colloquial term for catch from the 16th century. By the early 19th century it had also acquired this specific meaning.

In any case, nick in the sense of "steal" seems not at all far-fetched as a derivation from nick in the senses of "rob," "cheat," and "arrest." But nick in the sense of "rob" or "catch" remains unexplained in the reference works I consulted.

  • 1
    Fwiw, the OED places the early cites here for 'rob' under the sense of 'cheat'.
    – lly
    Jun 1, 2018 at 17:51
  • 1
    The use of nick to mean steal or cheat could be related to coin clipping which was the criminal activity of removing (nicking?) very small pieces of metal from the edges of gold and coins and melting them down. I have no references to quote in support of this suggestion, and we'll probably never know the truth, but it seems reasonable to me.
    – BoldBen
    Jun 1, 2018 at 18:56

To nick something is to steal it by putting it in your pocket or slipping it down the front of your pants. This usage broadened later, and came to mean stealing of all sorts, and then that morphed into meaning not just the action, but also the items that were stolen.

  • The OED doesn't seem to agree or have any cites supporting this.
    – lly
    Jun 1, 2018 at 17:53

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