We have the nick meaning prison, as in "he served time in the nick", then we have the verb to nick, meaning to steal; but if the police catch you red-handed, then "you've been nicked". And if you led a very bad life you could end up meeting with Old Nick, which as we all know is the Devil's nickname or nick 1 . And before I forget, Nick is also short for Nicholas.

If, however, something is in good nick 2 it's usually in admirable condition, but if we spot a few nicks on a porcelain ornament we consider it damaged and we might choose not to buy it. Be careful handling it though, the edges might be sharp and nick your skin.

I can see how the different meanings of nick 3 are related to one another in the examples above, but what escapes me is how did nick come to mean the last critical moment of time.

She was saved in the nick of time

Was her death stolen away? Does the nick here mean a small chip, a notch or a very small but significantly sharp edge of time that allowed her to be rescued? Or maybe, historically speaking, nick was a measure of time? Is the idiomatic expression, I wonder, "to be in time" related?

Can anyone shed any light? Thank you.

6 Answers 6


Maybe this reference helps, although more specific references would be better.

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.

  • @Mari-LouA An expert!
    – Dodgie
    Commented Nov 30, 2013 at 17:32
  • @Dodgie, I wish, a simple Google brought that up.
    – Nick Otime
    Commented Nov 30, 2013 at 17:33

A tally, or nick-stick was used to keep track of time, of points in sporting events, of commercial transactions and (till as late as 1826) of official book-keeping records.

With the widespread use of the tally it is not surprising that reference to it should enter popular parlance. To nick it down for instance meant 'to record something' and to nick the nick, 'to hit the right time' for something.

In the nick of time is the only extant expression.It probably has sporting origins.Team scores were notched up on nick-sticks and when a winning goal or goal was scored just before the end of the contest it was "in the nick of time".

INFO SOURCE: Dictionary of Idioms and Their Origins by Linda and Roger Flavell


Did a little research online, inspired by @Nick Otime and Preetie Sekhon's answers

A Glossary of North Country Words In Use. From An Original Manuscript, In The Library Of John George Lambton, ESQ., M.P. With Considerable Additions (1825) John Trotter Brockett, F.S.A 1

NICK-STICK, a tally, or notched stick, by which accounts are kept. This simple mode of reckoning seems to have been the only one known to the Northern nations. V. Jam. When a woman, in a certain state, goes longer than her calculation, she is said among the vulgar to have lost her nick-stick.

In the second edition,2 dated 1829, the entire book was revised and included a far greater number of etymological references. The book lost its original title and was renamed:

A Glossary of North Country Words, With Their Etymology, and Affinity to other Languages; and Occasional Notices of Local Customs and Popular Superstitions (Emphasis mine)

Nick-stick, a tally, or notched stick, by which accounts are kept after the ancient method. This simple mode of reckoning seem to have been the only one known to the Northern nations. Olaus Wormius gives us a representation of the tallies used by the ancient Danes, of which each party kept one. School-boys keep a nick-stick, with notches correspondent to the number of days preceding the vacation, from which with delight they cut daily one nick, up to the " very nick of time" for dulce domum.


Nick, noun, "[Swedish nick, Danish nik, Dutch knik, a nod; German nicken, to nod... The word seems to signify a point from shooting forward]." Etymological opinion: The phrase "in the nick of time" could be synonymous with "in a nod of time" or "in the time of a nod." 1. "The exact point of time required by necessity or convenience; the critical time. L'Estrange" Source: American Dictionary of the English Language- Noah Webster 1828-- facsimile from the Foundation for American Christian Education. Note (Assuming Roger L'Estrange 1616-1704 is the person Noah Webster is referring to in the entry.)

Nick, sb1, 1643 (John Angier) Lancashires Valley of Achor, 19- "We came in the nick of time to relieve the well affected in Preston." Source: Oxford English Dict. 1989 (note) this appears to be the earliest recorded use of the word "nick" in that context.


"Nick" is a fundamentally neutral word that means roughly means "notch." It is the context that determines whether it is good or bad.

"time in the nick" means "time in a confined space" (prison). "In the nick" means "in the act" or "red-handed."

Otherwise, an item can be in a good "nick" (place) or randomly "nicked" (bad). And "in the nick of time" means in the most critical time period [notch], which generally has good connotations.

  • How does this answer my question? I asked what was the meaning of "the nick" in the idiom in the nick of time. Are you saying a nick is synonymous with a notch?
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Nov 30, 2013 at 19:34
  • @Mari-LouA: In this context, yes.
    – Tom Au
    Commented Nov 30, 2013 at 21:06

The word Nick:

1.In the nick of time. Nick in this phrase is taken from the Latin "nictare" to wink. In a wink of time, or in no time.

2.I nicked. Nick is an attenuated form of nock, the old spelling of notch, and means a little notch. NOTCH, NOCK, an indentation, small hollow cut in an arrowhead, &c. Formerly nock, of which notch is a weakened form. ' The nocke of the shaft (1726 English etymology dictionary.) (Rev. Sheat: Etymology of the English language. 1888)

  • Marvellous! Thank you so much. Could you please add a link to "nictare", "nictor" or the 1726 source. I hope there is a copy of it online, somewhere.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Aug 13, 2018 at 16:55

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