In the Nick of Time – Idiom, Origin & Meaning

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Candace Osmond

Candace Osmond studied Advanced Writing & Editing Essentials at MHC. She’s been an International and USA TODAY Bestselling Author for over a decade. And she’s worked as an Editor for several mid-sized publications. Candace has a keen eye for content editing and a high degree of expertise in Fiction.

Is it knick of time or nick of time? Good question. But there’s more to learn about this common expression we use today. I’ll explain where it came from, how to spell it correctly, and how to use it in a sentence.

Nick of Time Meaning

In the Nick of Time Idiom Origin Meaning

We use the common phrase “in the nick of time” or “just in the nick of time” to describe something that happened at the last possible moment or just in time to avoid some kind of disaster or a negative outcome.

Like if you dropped the carton of milk, but someone else grabbed it before it hit the floor. You’d probably say something like, “Woah! You caught that just in the nick of time!”

Is It Knick of Time or Nick of Time?

Before we go any further, let’s clear up a common misconception I always see in books and other forms of writing. Whenever I see it, I just want to break out my red Sharpie and fix it!

The correct spelling of the phrase is “in the nick of time,” with “nick”‘ beginning with an N. It’s not “in the knick of time” with a silent K at the beginning.

In the Nick of Time Origin

The origin of the phrase “in the nick of time” can be traced back to the 1500s, when the term “nick” signified “the critical moment.” The phrase was initially just “in the nick,” and it referred to performing an action at the precise instant it was due.

During this period, a device known as a nick-stick was often used to track time, points, transactions, and specifically, events in sports. A nick-stick had small, precise notches or ‘nicks’ that acted as markers. Thus, if something was done “in the nick,” it meant the action was performed at the exact time or place it was intended to be.

The full phrase “in the nick of time,” as we use it today, has been documented in written records since 1643. Over time, it has come to symbolize accomplishing something just before it becomes too late or before a deadline expires.

What Are the Synonyms for Nick of Time?

There are a few other ways to express the same meaning as “in the nick of time.” Try any of these on for size.

  • Just in time
  • At the eleventh hour
  • At the last minute
  • Skin of your teeth
  • At the critical moment
  • In the final hour

How Do You Use Nick of Time in a Sentence?

In the Nick of Time Idiom Origin Meaning 1

Here are some examples in a sentence to give you some better context around using the phrase in writing and speech.

  • My husband arrived at the airport in the nick of time and made his flight to Halifax.
  • I was so relieved to see that the fire department arrived in the nick of time and saved the apartment building from burning down.
  • I helped my daughter finish her project in the nick of time, just before her tight deadline.
  • These movies are so predictable. The hero always swoops in to save the day in the nick of time.
  • We filed our taxes a few minutes before midnight, just in the nick of time.
  • During our Europe trip, we caught the train in the nick of time before it left the station in London.

Just in the Nick of Time!

Now it makes sense, right? The idiomatic expression “in the nick of time” can be used in the English language to show your relief that something happened before a disaster could. It can be on a small or large scale and even used in a humorous way. Have fun and play around as you add this phrase to your vocabulary.