Tag Archives: Shakespeare

Can you ‘nick’ it? Yes, you can!

15 Nov

The 'Do Not Nick' bin

Our council provides us with these giant bins for our waste, each large enough for a person to hide inside them.  And we don’t just get one; we get three – a black for general rubbish, green for recycling and brown from garden waste.  They’re pretty ugly and given the design of many of the houses, there’s often nowhere to keep them other than the front garden.

These bins are pretty hard to miss, so when out walking Mr Dog, I glanced into someone’s front garden and noticed one of these bins with the ‘DO NOT NICK’ painted in giant letters on it.  I did wonder if a prospective thief might be put off by such an instruction?  If you’re planning to steal something, do you stop because someone has left written instructions not to?

It got me thinking – just why do we use the word ‘nick’ for steal?  Was there a legendary thief called Nick?   I know the most famous ‘Nick’ of all, St Nicholas, is perhaps guilty of breaking and entering, but he’s definitely a giver, not a taker.

And what relation does it have to ‘nick’ (steal) have to ‘nick’ (cut) as in to nick the skin?  Or ‘nick’ (condition) as in ‘to be in good nick’?  Or ‘nick’ in the sense of ‘in the nick of time’?

So, using my free online access to the OED, I’ve looked ‘nick’ up.  There are far more uses of this word, both as a noun and verb, than I had ever imagined, but interestingly, its origins are obscure.

The earliest recorded usage of ‘nick’ as a verb appears to be in conjunction with the sense of ‘to make an indent or groove’, which the OED dates the earliest citation as around 1440.   It seems to have been particularly used with counting – someone would nick notches into a stick to count a flock, for instance.

This then develops into a more general sense of ‘cut into or through’ or ‘snip off’ at the end of the 16th century and appears in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra (1623) in this meaning: “ The itch of his Affection should not then Haue nickt his Captain-ship at such a point”. But it doesn’t appear in the sense of cutting into skin until the 20th century where James Joyce’s Ulysses is the first citation of using ‘nick’ in this way.

The OED then classifies a second sense of ‘nick’ as related to precision.  Perhaps this originates from the precision of counting (nicking the notches) and it’s from this sense that we get phrases like ‘in the nick of time’.  ‘Nick’ was also used to mean ‘just caught’ (we nicked the bus before it left) and also to hit or catch at just the right moment.

The final sense of ‘nick’ as a verb given by the OED relates to stealing.  Interestingly, the first usages of the word in this sense related specifically to cheating or swindling, which dates back to the late 16th century.  The sense of ‘nicking’ as meaning ‘pilfering’ only came in in the early 19th century.

And the use of ‘nick’ to mean to catch someone (he was nicked by the police) is first found in the mid-17th century, around 50 years after it was recorded in association with criminal activity.  ‘Nick’ meaning the police station originated in Australia in the late 19th century.

And finally, ‘nick’ as in ‘condition’ doesn’t appear in writing until the late 19th century.  I wonder if it’s related to ‘nick’, the small cut in an animal’s ear to indicate ownership?

This very short summary is ignoring the wealth of other meanings for ‘nick’ including genitals, dice playing, cross-breeding, biochemical reactions and a precise moment in time.   Do you think the chap with the ‘DO NOT NICK’ bin realised he tapped into a linguistic goldmine?