The Grammarphobia Blog

Tricky “nick”

Q: In British crime/court shows, “nick” is used to mean jail (“the nick”) as well as the act of being arrested (“he was nicked”). Where it gets interesting, though, is the way “nick” also means to steal. What’s the history of this great word?

A: “Nick” is a tricky word, one with a lot of colloquial or slang meanings and a questionable birth. It’s not even certain which came first, the verb or the noun, though they’re undoubtedly related.

As the Oxford English Dictionary succinctly puts it: “Origin unknown.”

Although the OED’s earliest citation is for the verb, an etymology note says “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.”

When the word first showed up in print in the 13th century, according to Oxford citations, “nick” was a verb meaning to make a denial.

The OED cites the Ancrene Riwle (circa 1225), an anonymous guide for monastic women, as the source of the earliest example of the usage. However, the dictionary describes this sense as rare, so let’s move on.

By the 15th century, the verb “nick” was being used in the sense of making a notch or cut in something.

Oxford‘s earliest example (with “nicked” spelled “nikit”) comes from a 1460 entry from the Ayr Burgh Court Books, records of the Royal Burgh of Ayr in Scotland.

But we’ll skip ahead to this cutting example from Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors (written in the 1590s):

“My Mr preaches patience to him, and the while / His man with Cizers nickes him like a foole.” (We’ve expanded the OED citation.)

The verb took on its sense of chicanery in the 16th century, when it came to mean to trick, cheat, or defraud.

The dictionary’s earliest citation is from Rocke of Regard, a 1576 collection of prose and verse translated from Italian by George Whetstone:

“I neuer nickt the poorest of his pay, / But if hee lackt, hee had before his day.”

By the early 1800s, this sense of the verb had evolved to mean to steal or pilfer. Here’s an example from an 1826 collection of the works of the Scottish poet David Anderson:

“Some there ha’e gotten their pouches picket, / Their siller an’ their watches nickit.”

We’ll have to back up a bit now. In the 17th century, the verb took on the colloquial sense of to catch or take unawares.

The OED’s first citation is from The Prophetess, a 1622 play by John Fletcher and Philip Massinger: “We must be sometimes wittie, to nick a knave.”

The dictionary says this sense evolved into the slang use of “nick” to mean to be pinched by the constabulary.

It’s hard to tell from the OED examples exactly when people began using “nick” in this slang sense, but it was probably sometime in the 18th or 19th century.

Here’s a clear example from Japhet, in Search of a Father, Frederick Marryat’s 1836 novel about a foundling’s search for his unknown parents:

“He has come to get off his accomplice, and now we’ve just nicked them both.”

Now, let’s discuss the arrival of “nick” as a noun. Although the OED has a couple of questionable 15th-century citations for the noun, the earliest definite example is from the 16th century.

When the noun first appeared in print in the early 16th century, it referred to a notch made to keep a score, but that sense is now obsolete, according to the OED.

By the late 1600s, the noun was being used in a more general way to describe a notch, groove, or slit in something.

The first example of this new usage in the OED is from a 1578 book of anatomy by the English anatomist, surgeon, and teacher John Banister: “Departyng from this corner, or deepe nicke … there riseth a certaine sharpe Processe.”

The slang use of “nick” to mean a jail, especially one in a police station, originally showed up in Australia in the 1880s. The first Oxford citation is this entry from the Sydney Slang Dictionary (1882): “Nick (The), gaol.”

Here’s a more recent example from Martin Amis’s 1995 novel The Information: “Know how much it costs to keep a bloke in nick for a week?”

Although the various cops-and-robbers senses of “nick” are more common in the UK than the US, the usage isn’t unknown among Americans.

Robert Coover, for example, uses it in The Public Burning, his 1977 novel about Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. In commenting on Broadway’s origins as an old Indian trail, Coover writes:

“It’s said the last to use it were the Mana-hatta tribe, who departed by it after nicking gullible old Peter Minuit, first of the tourist yokels, for twenty-four dollars.”

We’ve discussed only a few of the many meanings of “nick” here. If you’d like to read more, we had a post six years ago that also dealt with the use of “Nick” or “Old Nick” to mean the Devil.

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