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This versatile word has several colloquial uses: “John got nicked for nicking a telly, and now he’s in the nick.” To “nick” something is to steal it, but “nick” is such a casual-sounding word that it seems a much less serious crime than stealing: “Shall we nick a couple of bikes and get home faster?” The speaker might be horrified if anyone suggested “stealing” a bike, but nicking it seems much more venial. To nick a person is to arrest them: “He got nicked for assault.” And a nick is a police cell or prison. “He’s gone straight since last time he come out of the nick.”

“In good nick” (or bad nick) means in good (or bad) condition: “This old banger’s in dreadful nick — I’ll give you 50 quid for it.” And something that happens “in the nick of time” is just, by a whisker, in time to save the day.

All the meanings are from the same root, which is also the root meaning a small notch or cut; but where it comes from is anyone’s guess. Though the word does plenty of work already, historically it has had even more meanings: to nick a train, for instance, was to arrive just in time to catch it, a useful word with no modern equivalent. It also has meant variously to compare or match with something, to call (related to “nickname”), to criticize, and to seize an opportunity; “the nick” once meant, among other things, the essential part or nub of anything.

Mark Wainwright is a freelance writer living in Cambridge. Got a question about something you’ve seen or heard around the United Kingdom? E-mail us at: uknews@estripes.osd.mil


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