Q: In regard to your recent article about the criminal uses of “nick,” what about its use in the expression “nick of time”?
A: The noun “nick,” which referred to a notch or groove when it showed up in the 1500s, soon took on an additional meaning: the exact point of time when something takes place or needs to be done.
The earliest example of this usage in the Oxford English Dictionary is from Arthur Golding’s 1565 translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses: “there commeth in the nicke.”
The OED says this use of “nick” alone is “now somewhat rare,” but notes the longer form you’ve asked about.
When the expression “nick of time” showed up in the early 1600s, it meant pretty much the same thing as “nick”—that is, a crucial moment when something occurs or has to occur.
The OED’s first citation for the full version of the expression is from a 1610 sermon by the English clergyman John Day: “Even in this nicke of time, this very, very instant.”
Another example, from a 1757 letter by George Washington, refers to a sweet-scented tobacco crop that “must if the Ship arriv’d Safe get to Market in the Nick of time.”
And here’s an example from Lucy Maud Montgomery’s 1908 novel Anne of Green Gables: “If Mr. Andrews hadn’t caught her by her sash just in the nick of time she’d have fallen in.”