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The Real Story Behind the Phrase ‘In the Nick of Time’

wwarby, Flickr

When something gets done ‘in the nick of time,’ it means the clock is about run out, and whatever needed doing almost didn’t get done at all. In the movie ‘The Hangover,’ the guys have a wild bachelor’s party weekend in Las Vegas, and only make it back to Los Angeles for the groom’s wedding ‘in the nick of time.’

But where exactly does this oft-used expression come from?

It has its roots in pudding

Centuries ago, people used to keep track of time in a completely different way. It was a far more general concept, often related to when people sat down to eat. Pudding time referred to the first dish of the meal being served, although the pudding in question wasn’t the sweet stuff we gobble down today.

The pudding changed, but the idea remained the same

The word ‘pudding’ eventually changed and was used to describe a sweet dish that came after the meal. Therefore ‘pudding time’ could no longer be used to mark the start of something, whether it was the hour for chow, or a particular time of the day.

Nicks and tally sticks became a way to keep tabs of time

Tally sticks were once used to keep precise records. Perhaps in some backwater places, they still are. A nick or a small notch cut into a tally stick marked a score, or a specific measurement. Every nick counted for an individual unit of something, and that could be applied to a unit of time as well. Thus ‘nicks of time’ replaced ‘pudding time.’

Nicks can equal big bucks

So, to shed a bit more light on this expression, you can ponder this example: a gentleman living in the 17th century pays a stable boy to look after his horse. When he comes to collect his horse several hours later, he arrives just as the stable boy is about to carve another nick into his tally stick (marking the time). By getting there before the knife touches the wood, the gentleman avoids having to pay for any addition time. He’s arrived ‘in the nick of time.’


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