“In the Nick of Time” – Phrase Origin

We all regularly use the phrase “in the nick of time” as English speakers. It has come to mean arriving at the precise moment before it is too late—no sooner or later. But the phrase hasn’t been around forever, so where exactly did it come from?

The phrase “in the nick of time” comes from the word nick—a small precise cut. To arrive in the nick of time is to arrive in a small window, just before a deadline. This replaced “pudding time” in the Tudor period after a change in meal schedule rendered the phrase nonsense. 

The phrase “in the nick of time” has a fascinating history and is one of the more clear-cut explanations for English idioms which often derive from complete nonsense. Here is a complete history of the phrase.

Where Did “In the Nick of Time” Come From?

The Merriam-Webster definition of a “nick” is “a small notch, groove, or chip” or “a small cut or wound.” The phrase “in the nick of time” presumably derives from this meaning. 

The phrase likely comes from a variation of the words “in the nick,” which meant the same thing as “in the nick of time.” This version of the phrase came from a 16th-century practice of carving nicks into wood to record time intervals. If you arrived “in the nick,” you arrived where the nick is in the wood, barely in the allotted time frame.

However, it could also come from comparing a slight precise indentation in a piece of wood or your skin to the precise moment in which you arrived. 

It can often be challenging to trace back language changes in the English language because the exact phrase can be changed over time to mean several different things, and it is impossible to tell which one influenced any given expression.

In this case, it is likely that the 16th-century phrase “in the nick” originated from the poorer classes who used wood for timekeeping. It was later misinterpreted by the upper classes to be “in the nick of time” because a “nick of time” is a short, precise gap in time, much like a “nick of wood” is a short, precise cut in wood.

The word “nick” might also be related to scorekeeping. In the 19th century, it was common to keep track of points in sports by marking “nick-sticks” or “tally sticks. These were small, precise markings, so it’s easy to see the connection with the modern use of the word.

Meaning of “In the Nick of Time”

The Merriam-Webster definition of “in the nick of time” is “just before the last moment when something can be changed or something bad will happen.” 

It means that you arrive where you need to be or complete your current task exactly when it needs to be completed, no sooner and no later. The phrase “pudding time” would also reflect this, as you arrived precisely in time for pudding, not early or late.

For example, if an ambulance arrives “in the nick of time,” it has shown up in time to save the patient, but only just. They were probably about to go into cardiac arrest just as it arrived on the scene. If you hand in an assignment “in the nick of time,” you have probably left it to the very last minute to submit. There was a risk involved, but you made it by the skin of your teeth.

The History Behind the Phrase “In the Nick of Time”

The phrase “in the nick of time” is a relatively modern addition to English, originating around the Tudor period (1485-1603). Although the origin of “in the nick of time” is relatively clear, it didn’t appear out of the blue. It started out as a substitute for an older phrase that had the same meaning: pudding time.

Throughout the Medieval period in England, pudding was served as the first course of any large meal. This may seem odd now, as we tend to have our sweet course at the end of a formal dinner. However, this is a relatively modern change that didn’t become a tradition until the Victorian era.

Because pudding was the meal’s first course, it was common to use the phrase “in pudding time” to refer to someone arriving in the nick of time. If you arrive at “pudding time,” then you are right on time for the meal to begin. However, this tradition eventually changed, and with it came one of the most common phrases in the modern English language.

The high society in the Tudor era took their customs very seriously. They were one of the main ways of distinguishing themselves from the lower classes. It’s not surprising that small mealtime rituals like “pudding time” had an important place in their vocabulary.

Around the Tudor period, meal etiquette began to change in the upper classes. This started the shift toward the formal three-course structure that has remained to this day. Due to this shift, it became a more common occurrence to show up at the dinner table not to have a pudding in sight.

This change rendered the phrase “pudding time” more and more obsolete as time went on. From the Tudor period through to the Victorian period, meals varied vastly, and the phrase made no sense to most people. Around this time, we see the phrase “in the nick of time” make its first appearance. It is unclear at what point it first appeared or its exact origin, but there are some very convincing theories.

It’s likely that the phrase grew in popularity during the 19th century as “nick-sticks” were used to keep track of scores in sports and commercial transactions. One notable piece of evidence lies in a book titled A Glossary of North Country Words from 1829, which contains an entry for “nick–sticks.” Here’s an interesting fragment from that entry:

“Nick-stick, a tally, or notched stick, by which accounts are kept after the ancient method. (…) 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.”

This fragment is an early example of “nick of time” being used with a similar meaning to what it has today.

Influences on the English Language

The word “nick” has a complex and intertwined etymology in British English, which means the phrase likely didn’t originate from one singular use of the word, but a combination of many. It may also have contributed to creating similar terms with different meanings.

For example, to be “nicked,” especially in the south of England, meant to be arrested or caught by police, and “nick” meant stealing something quickly. Both phrases may derive from the theft and the arrest that happened in the nick of time. This would lead to prisons being called “the nick” by association.

The phrase “in good nick” is also assumed to be derived from “in the nick of time.” The term, meaning to be in good condition, derives from seeing something or someone at the precise or perfect time in its lifespan. However, it is unclear whether this can be traced back to the term “in the nick of time” or simply “nick.”

Final Thoughts

The phrase “in the nick of time” has come to have a significant impact on the English language. It has been translated into other English-speaking countries despite lacking the history that contributed to its creation.

Whether this phrase will ever die out is yet to be seen, but we do know that 400 years later, the term is still going strong and isn’t likely to go anywhere anytime soon. So next time you hear your friends or family use the phrase “in the nick of time,” you can tell them exactly why they’re saying it now!