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Re: Nip and Tuck

Posted by ESC on December 04, 2000

In Reply to: Nip and Tuck posted by chicoles on December 03, 2000

: I haven't been able to find a satisfactory explanation for the origin of the expression "nip and tuck." I understand that it means a situation of essential equality, but what is the origin of the "nip" and the "tuck?"

The short answer is, no one knows the origin. The long answer is:

NIP AND TUCK - "Nip and tuck pretty much means 'neck and neck,' but the latter phrase suggests, say, two runners racing at the same speed with neither one ahead of the other, while 'nip and tuck' describes a close race where the lead alternates. The earliest recorded form of the expression is found in James K. Paulding's 'Westward Ho!' : 'There we were at rip and tuck, up one tree and down another.' Maybe the rip originally came from 'let 'er rip' and later became nip because of the expression 'to nip someone out,' to barely beat him, while the 'tuck' was simply an old slang word for 'vim and vigor.' Other guesses at the phrases' origins are even wilder." From the "Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins" by Robert Hendrickson (Facts on File, New York, 1997)

A second reference states that a dozen or so years after Mr. Paulding used the phrase, William T. Porter ".wrote it both 'nip and tack' and 'nip and chuck.' But 'nip and tuck' has been common usage through the years since. The dictionaries, playing safe, refuse even to guess at the source, but I'll stick my neck out to suggest that perhaps Paulding was right. A rip, of course, is the result of what mother does to a piece of cloth in reducing it to smaller portions; the tuck the fold she makes in one such portion to sew it to another, as in making a patchwork quilt. By successive rips and tucks the patchwork comes out even. Pretty thin? Well, even some dictionary derivations with all steps known look superficially thinner." From "Heavens to Betsy" by Charles Earle Funk (1955, Harper & Row).

The Morrises don't think much of Mr. Funk's theory : " There are a very considerable number of theories about the origin of this expression, which means 'closely contested or neck-and-neck.' 'It was nip and tuck whether the car or the train would reach the crossing first.' Some authorities claim that the expression comes from tucking in an infant ('little nipper') but this seems much to tame to us. Still another man, the late Charles Earle Funk, fantasized an elaborate theory based on speculation that the expression really out to be 'rip and tuck,' and said it had to do with ripping cloth and then tucking it together when making a patchwork quilt. Still pretty tame, say we." From the "Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins" by William and Mary Morris (HarperCollins, New York, 1977, 1988).