Q&A: The origin of “in good nick”

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, we are getting nicked off..

Q: Hi AWC, I was talking to my friend Nick the other day.

A: That’s nice.

Q: We were at an antiques store and made a joke about something being “in good nick”.

A: …

Q: Geddit? Because his name is Nick?

A: Seems like you had to be there.

Q: Well anyway, we thought it was hilarious. But it got us asking why we say “in good nick” in the first place? A nick is something you DON’T want your antique to have!

A: That’s true. A “nick” – it’s most common meaning as a notch or cut – is definitely going to devalue your precious antique. This definition is likely to have come from the Old French “niche” and dates way back to the mid-1400s. But of course, “nick” is a busy word.

Q: Tell me more.

A: Well, you can nick the ball off your bat in cricket. It’s also a printing guide and a horse breeding term. In British slang, your car might get nicked – stolen (dating back to 1869). Oh, but look, the police have nicked – arrested – the thief (this is older, from the 1620s). The thief might say “get nicked!” and subsequently get put in the nick – prison. 

Q: What drama! 

A: You can also “nick out to the shops” or “nick across the road” quickly. Doing so without remembering to get dressed will see you  “in the nick” – naked. This latter one might be related to “nix” – from the German “nichts” and meaning “nothing”, such as having nothing on.

Q: You’re right – it IS a busy word.

A: It even gives us another common phrase, “in the nick of time”. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, this one started life in the early 1600s as “the nick of opportunity” before switching to “time” by the 1640s.

Q: Why a “nick” for time?

A: Back then, they often marked time by making notches on a tally stick – so these were literal nicks of time. 

Q: That reminds me of when I was fired from the clock factory.

A: Why?

Q: I kept putting in extra hours. Bahahahaaaa.

A: Hmmmm. Anyway, at last we come to the phrase “in good nick” – meaning that something is in good condition.

Q: That’s the one. Is it also related to notches? Or prisons? Or cricket?

A: It doesn’t seem to be. In fact, it appears confined once more to British usage, or more specifically Australia and New Zealand – with examples of it in publications appearing as early as 1878. He is without doubt in good nick,” the earliest reference stated.

Q: But WHY nick?

A: There are a few theories. The Oxford English Dictionary references a source from the 1880s that claimed the phrase “up to dick, or nick” meant to be in first-rate condition. Another suggestion is that it links back to the racehorse breeding meaning. 

Q: What exactly IS that meaning?

A: In short, “nicks” are a system of predicting a racehorse’s success based on sire x mare breeding combinations. To be “in poor nick” would suggest bad genes, with the opposite true of a well-bred horse – one that is well nicked, or “in good nick”.

Q: I’m feeling rather horse all of sudden. Any other theories?

A: One other theory links it to “nick of time” – specifically with “nick” meaning a precise or perfect moment. This suggestion of perfection is thought to be linked to something being “in good nick”.  

Q: I think I like the horsey theory better.

A: Fair enough. The point is that the origin story is much like British pop in the late ‘90s. Blurry.

Q: Haha. Actually, all this talk reminds me of something. Did you hear about the actor who stole the canary?

A: What? No. Who was it?

Q: Nick Cage! Bahahaaaaa.

A: Go away…

Do you have a question you’d like us to explore? Email it to us today!


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