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This blog is about the fascinating, fun, and challenging things about the English language. I hope to entertain you and to help you with problems or just questions you might have with spelling and usage. I go beyond just stating what is right and what is wrong, and provide some history or some tips to help you remember. Is something puzzling you? Feel free to email me at wordlady.barber@gmail.com.
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Friday, July 18, 2014

Nipped in the bud

A Wordlady fan has asked about the word "nip". If it means a small piece of something, why does it also mean "go somewhere nearby quickly"?

"Nip" came into English in the 1300s, probably from a Dutch word meaning "pinch" and meant "pinch, bite or squeeze sharply", as it still does.  Since this kind of pinch or bite was something that was done quickly, soon the idea of "snatch or seize quickly" became attached to "nip" and from there it was a short step to "move quickly", a usage that has been with us since the early 1800s. 

The Oxford English Dictionary and Merriam-Webster Dictionary both label this sense as "especially British". Of course we North Americans do not "nip down the pub" (at least not in so many words!) or "nip round the shops", but in the Canadian Oxford Dictionary we did not put a geographically restrictive label on this meaning, which suggests we had plenty of North American evidence of people nipping out for a smoke or nipping down to the store. If you are Canadian or American, please let me know if this usage strikes you as more British.

There is a specifically Canadian use of the word "nip", found in Manitoba and northwestern Ontario, where a nip (usually in a "nip and chips" combo) is a hamburger. This is particularly associated with the Salisbury House chain of restaurants which started using "Salisbury Nips" as a name for sandwiches and burgers in 1931 and registered it as a trademark in 1933.  Well-brought-up young ladies from Ontario told stories of being shocked when invited by their Winnipeg beau to go for a "nip", thinking they were proposing a shot of hard liquor (that's yet another "nip", derived from a Dutch word meaning "sip").
For another example of the linguistically fraught relationship between westerners and easterners, see this post: http://katherinebarber.blogspot.ca/2013/12/guess-whos-coming-to.html

Of course the "nip" that's most popular at Chateau Wordlady is the one that caters to Minkus's and Papagena's drug habit: catnip. This word is totally unrelated to the other "nips", being derived from the Latin name of the plant (possibly of Etruscan origin), nepeta.

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About Me

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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.