Origins #14: Keeping Score, Keeping Tally, Shares, and Stocks

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Tally Stick

Tally Stick

I get a phrase (and its origin) sent to me via email every week. You can subscribe by clicking here and scrolling down to the bottom of the page.

This week’s phrase is ‘in the nick of time’, and it’s pretty interesting, but that’s not the reason for this post. There is a little tidbit thrown in there as an aside, which I found really interesting.

In order to provide some context, I’m going to do a little copy-and-paste from the post. (Pay more attention when you get to the note.)

…Prior to the 16th century there was another expression used to convey that meaning – ‘pudding time’. This relates to the fact that pudding was the dish served first at mediaeval mealtimes. To arrive at pudding time was to arrive at the start of the meal, just in time to eat…

…That seems a perfectly serviceable idiom, so why did the Tudors change it to ‘the nick of time’? The motivation appears to be the desire to express a finer degree of timing than the vague ‘around the beginning of the meal’. The nick that was being referred to was a notch or small cut and was synonymous with precision. Such notches were used on ‘tally’ sticks to measure or keep score…

Note: the expressions ‘keeping score‘ and ‘keeping tally‘ derive from this and so do ‘stocks‘ and ‘shares‘, which refer to the splitting of such sticks (stocks) along their length and sharing the two matching halves as a record of a deal.

It’s interesting that from a stick that used to have marks in it we get such ubiquitous terms that span sports and business.

Cool, no?

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