I've enjoyed your material on the etymology of the word "nick" meaning:

A) just in time = in the nick of time (from notches nicked into wood or also to denote good timing)

B) in good condition = in good nick (maybe the neck & head of horses, or good inter-breeding of horses or related to the word nickel & attractive silver nickel)

C) stolen = he nicked it (copper-looking "nickel" that doesn't actually contain copper)

D) caught or jailed = he got nicked (caught out at that time, or due to demon connotations (old nick))


  • why is "nick" used in the word "nick-name" to mean a shortened or pet name - when as you can see set out very briefly above, "nick" didn't seem to mean "short"? All I can think of is that perhaps because a notch of time is "nicked" into wood, nick might be used to say "little bits" of time, as for time keeping or scoring/counting you would count up all the many notches to make the total, therefore comparatively each "nick" is a smaller part of the whole?


  • if "old-Nick" was a reference to the demon or bad sprite, how did it end up being used for Santa Clause ("Saint Nick")?

4 Answers 4


Its origin dates back to the beginning of the 14th century, while its current spelling is more recent: Nickname:

  • The compound word ekename, literally meaning "additional name", was attested as early as 1303. This word was derived from the Old English phrase eaca "an increase", related to eacian "to increase".

  • By the fifteenth century, the misdivision of the syllables of the phrase "an ekename" led to its reanalysis as "a nekename". Though the spelling has changed, the pronunciation and meaning of the word have remained relatively stable ever since.


Nick is also the short for Nicholas, (Saint Nicholas in this case) but it is not clear if "Saint Nick" is related to the "Old Nick", and probably it is not:

  • masc. proper name, familiar form of Nicholas. As "the devil" by 1640s, but the reason for it is obscure.

See also:

Old Nick and English deviltry from Grammarphobia

  • “Old Nick” (later “Nick”) has been a name for the Devil since the mid-17th century. The OED says there’s no convincing explanation of how “Nick” came to be associated with deviltry.

  • One theory, according to the dictionary, is that the name “Nick” comes from Machiavelli’s first name, Niccolò. Another theory is that “Nick” is a shortened form of “iniquity.”

  • Whatever the origin of this usage, it’s not surprising that a word with such shady connections should come to mean a place where shady characters are held by the police.

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    "ekename" - interesting... In Norway we have and use the word "økenavn" (ø often transcribed as oe in English), which basically means nickname... Not in the computer-sense of the word, but in the sense that someone start calling you something - like "Littlefingers". I'm not sure if this was originally the case, but "økenavn" is usualy used for an unflattering (perhaps viciously so) nickname - eg. by someone teasing you, or about bad politicians and such... Another word - "kallenavn" ("calling-name") - is used for more neutral, positive and friendly nickname... and for usernames. Jul 24, 2016 at 11:34
  • From the TV-show "Lucifer": "So you're the Devil?" "Yes. Well, Satan, Beelzebub... Old Scratch. (pause) Actually, I like that one in particular." Jul 24, 2016 at 11:46
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    Eke remains in use in modern English, almost entirely through the phrase "eke out" dictionary.com/browse/eke
    – James K
    Jul 24, 2016 at 20:54
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    ‘Eke out a living’, by the way, originally meant ‘add to a fixed income’. A ‘living’ was the stipend of, for example, a village priest; when this sense of ‘living’ was forgotten, the meaning of ‘eke out’ in that fixed phrase was misunderstood. Jul 24, 2016 at 23:55
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    Side note - that misdivison of the syllables (ie the moving of the 'n' to the start of the word) happened the opposite way round with the word "orange" (the fruit), which used to be "a norange" (after the Spanish "naranja"). Jul 25, 2016 at 8:58

The Oxford Advanced Learners' Dictionary suggests the following explanation:


  • Late Middle English origin, from eke name (eke means additional), misinterpreted by wrong division, as a neke name.

Some suggestions exist that widely used aka is not the abbreviation of also known as but the modern form of eke.

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    Whose suggestions are those? They're certainly not found in ODO, as you make it look here. The modern form of eke is eke. There is simply no way that Middle English eke could become Modern English aka, especially since that is always pronounced [eɪ keɪ eɪ], and anyone who would suggest such a thing must be presumed to be completely unknowledgeable about historical linguistics. Jul 24, 2016 at 10:40
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    @JanusBahsJacquet firstly, no need to be aggressive. The second, I do NOT make it look that it is suggested in OED, as you see my post was edited, so now it looks like the last sentence belongs to the citation from the dictionary. . Jul 24, 2016 at 11:05
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    Sorry, I hadn't noticed that it was Josh’s edit that made it look like that. No aggression was intended, though. The suggestion itself still seems highly suspicious to me; if you have a source for it, that would improve the answer. (Also, ODO is Oxford, but not the same as the OALD. It looks like your original quote was from the [hardback] OALD, whereas the link now there leads to ODO.) Jul 24, 2016 at 11:08
  • In Norway we still use the word "økenavn" for unflattering nicknames. We also use "kallenavn" ("calling-name") for more neutral, positive and friendly nicknames - as well as for "computer nicknames" (when we don't use "good Norwegian words" like "login", "username", "nickname" or "nick"). Jul 24, 2016 at 11:52
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    Unless you have a source for the "aka" etymology, I suggest you remove it. People "suggest" a lot of nonsense regarding language.
    – chepner
    Jul 25, 2016 at 13:42

According to the OED, nickname is a variant of eke-name, with eke an Old English root meaning "a part added on". So nickname did not originally denote a shortened name, but any name in addition to your formal name. The usage "an abbreviated name" came later.

Although nick is of unknown origin, no one suspects it is related to eke.

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    What do you mean by the last sentence?
    – Rhymoid
    Jul 25, 2016 at 13:46

Middle English -ik, -ick, word-forming element making adjectives, "having to do with, having the nature of, being, made of, caused by, similar to," (OED)

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