If you’re a user of British English, a trouble-maker, or just plain unlucky, you’re likely to be familiar with getting nicked, being in the nick, and having something nicked from you. Any English-speaker with a hectic life will be familiar with getting something done in the nick of time. And anyone who has let his hands or her attention slip while shaving has felt the sting and been forced to display the evidence of that kind of nick.
A nick—a small scratch or notch—can serve as a marker or mnemonic, a record of time, money, or anything that one needs to notice. Tally sticks have been used for millennia, with nicks or score-marks carved into wood, bone, stone or, sadly, ivory. A split tally stick or nick-stick system was used in medieval Europe and for seven centuries in England (approx. 1100-1826) as a means of recording the payment of taxes and repayment of debts.
Sorry, I got carried away with all those different nicks. The link to letterpress printing, you might well ask? The shank of a block of metal type is grooved on one side to indicate which way is up. This groove or notch is known as the nick. When one considers that type meant for relief printing is a mirror image of itself and is hand-set upside–down, one will appreciate the value of that little nick to remind the compositor which side is up. Furthermore all the letters and symbols of a certain typeface will bear the nick in exactly the same place, so that when typesetting the compositor will see at a glance if a letter from a different typeface has accidentally got into the mix.
It is reassuring to know that humans have been using nick-sticks or one kind or the other since Paleolithic times to help us regulate, keep track of, and sometimes even save our complicated lives. Because it’s not always clear or obvious, I’m grateful for that little nick, reminding me which way is up.