'In the Nick of Time': Definition, Meaning, Examples

By Carly Forsaith, updated on October 14, 2023

If you've ever heard someone say 'in the nick of time' and wondered what it meant, you've come to the right place. In this article, you'll learn the meaning of this popular idiom, its possible origins, and how to use it.

If you're just here for the short version, this is it:

  • To do something 'in the nick of time' means to do it at the last possible moment. 

What Does 'In the Nick of Time' Mean?

'In the nick of time' is an idiom, which means it can't be interpreted literally. Just understanding the words isn't enough to decipher the meaning; you have to be familiar with the intended metaphorical sense.

  • To do something 'in the nick of time' means to do it just in time, at the last possible moment, or the critical moment before something bad is about to happen or before a deadline expires.
  • It implies that an action or event occurred at the very moment it was needed, preventing a negative outcome or meeting a deadline.
  • It conveys a sense of urgency and timely intervention. 

Imagine, for instance, that you had a deadline on Thursday at midnight to submit a university assignment and submitted it at 11 p.m.

You might say:

I submitted my assignment just in the nick of time; I had one hour to spare.

It's often preceded by the adverb 'just,' as in 'just in the nick of time.' Some people try to spell it 'knick,' with a silent 'k', but this is incorrect.

Where Does 'In the Nick of Time' Come From?

To understand the origins of this idiom, it's helpful to know that a nick stick used to be a device used to keep track of time, usually during sporting events. It was an actual stick on which little notches were made in order to keep tally. Those little notches were called 'nicks,' and to this day, a nick still represents a small cut or notch.

  • Anyway, so this was in the 1500s. Nowadays, you'd probably just use a timer. Nonetheless, this helps us see that the idiom dates quite a few centuries back.

Another possibility is that "nick" could be derived from the word's earlier meaning, which referred to a critical moment or a point of decision. Over time, this evolved into the current idiomatic expression we use today.

In any case, the phrase has been in use since at least the 17th century, and its precise origin remains a bit elusive. It's one of those idioms that has stood the test of time and continues to be widely used in the English language.

Examples in Sentences

Now that we've covered the meaning of this idiom and its origins, here are some example sentences that use it.

The new security measures proved to be highly effective: the enhanced system detected and prevented it in the nick of time.

After a series of setbacks, she received a personal email with the information she needed just in the nick of time.

The doctor's timely intervention came in the nick of time to save the patient's life.

We caught the train in the nick of time, as it was about to depart from the station.

The quick thinking of the lifeguard saved the drowning swimmer in the nick of time.

The arrival of the experienced consultant in the nick of time proved especially beneficial for the success of the project.

The hero in the movie always arrives in the nick of time to save the day.

The team grew increasingly anxious, but the unexpected extension came in the nick of time, relieving their stress.

The detective uncovered the crucial evidence in the nick of time to solve the case.

The pilot skillfully landed the plane in the nick of time, avoiding a potential disaster.

Other Ways to Say 'In the Nick of Time'

There are plenty of other ways to tell someone to calm down and wait before jumping into action. They're great to use if you're looking for alternative phrases.

Here are some of them:

  • just in time
  • at the eleventh hour
  • at the last minute
  • the skin of your teeth
  • at the critical moment
  • in the final hour
  • not a moment too soon
  • at the critical moment

Concluding Thoughts

That concludes this article about this popular idiom. To summarize, when something happens just in the nick of time, this means it occurs just at the last possible moment before something can no longer be changed or helped.

Are you ready to learn more English phrases and expand your vocabulary? Check out our idioms blog for idioms, expressions, sayings, and more!

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Written By:
Carly Forsaith
Carly Forsaith is one of the lead freelance writers for WritingTips.org. Carly is a copywriter who has been writing about the English language for over 3 years. Before that, she was a teacher in Thailand, helping people learn English as a second language. She is a total grammar nerd and spends her time spotting language errors on signs and on the internet.

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