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The meaning and origin of the expression: Nip and tuck

Nip and tuck

What's the meaning of the phrase 'Nip and tuck'?

A nip and tuck race race or contest is one with close result. More recently, 'Nip and tuck' has been adopted as the name of a cosmetic surgery procedure.

What's the origin of the phrase 'Nip and tuck'?

The 'close result' meaning of this phrase originated in the 19th century. It is easy to see why it was later appropriated as the name of the minor cosmetic surgery 'skin-tightenning'. Nipping and tucking are what me might imagine being done in such a procedure. The name began to be used in the 1970s and the earliest reference I can find to it in that context is from The Lethbridge Herald, January 1974:

It's top-to-toe cosmetic surgery [for Liz Taylor's character] at an expensive European clinic to take the sag out of a failing marriage. Liz emerges porcelain pretty, accompanied by Keith Baxter playing Roddy McDowell (he's had a bit of the nip and tuck at the clinic too).

The earlier usage is a little more difficult to understand as the connections between both words 'nip' and 'tuck' and the 'close result' meaning of the phrase aren't easy to see. There is an earlier expression 'rip and tuck'. This has a different meaning - something akin to 'fast and loose', but it is hard to imagine that the two phrases are unrelated. 'Rip and tuck' is first found in James Kirke Paulding's Westward Ho!, 1832:

"There we were at rip and tuck, up one tree and down another."

The first known usage of 'nip and tuck' comes from the Arkansas Times and Advocate, August 1838:

"It will be a close race in this county - Tully and Cummins, nip and tuck; and I don't know which will have it."

Why 'nip' and why 'tuck'? There are several meanings of both words but none of them suggests anything that relates directly to any sort of close race or result. The phrase is somewhat similar to 'neck and neck', which has virtually the same meaning. It is possible, although I'd admit, entirely speculative, that 'nip and tuck' is a deliberately garbled version of 'neck and neck'. Apart from that, I'm out of ideas.

Gary Martin - the author of the website.

By Gary Martin

Gary Martin is a writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.

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