Nip and tuck is a common expression that I’ve used and heard many, many times, but never gave at thought as to its origin.<2011 “The race was nip and tuck from start to finish.”—MIT 150, 5 May, page 41, published by the Boston Globe>
Back in 1998 Ask the Wordwizard provided the following when asked for the origin of NIP AND TUCK:
Nip and tuck, meaning neck and neck, comes from nip, a light touch and Ital. tocco, a blow, thus a heavier contact.
I wouldn’t regard this as one of Johnathon Green’s more stellar responses. I was also surprised that it was not listed in his Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang.
Today, all sources I checked had a bit more to say on the definition and all gave the origin as ‘unknown.’
PICURESQUE EXPRESSIONS by L. Urdang
NIP AND TUCK: So close as to be of uncertain outcome [[a very close contest]]; neck and neck, on a par, even; up in the air, questionable. This chiefly U.S. term is of puzzling origin and inconsistent form, appearing in print in the 1800s as rip and tuck, nip and tack, and nip and chuck, before assuming its present nip and tuck. Its original restriction to contexts describing close contests, usually athletic, lends credence to the claim that it originated as a wrestling term (Barrére and Leland, Dictionary of Slang,1890). The expression is now employed in much broader contexts, indicative of any kind of uncertainty.
FACTS ON FILE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF WORD AND PHRASE ORIGINS
NIP AND TUCK: Nip and tuck pretty much means ‘neck and neck,’ but the latter 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! (1832). “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 phrase’s origin are even wilder.
OXFORD ENGLISH DICTIONARY
NIP AND TUCK adjective and adverb, originally U.S.: Chiefly in predicative use. So closely contested as to make it hard to predict a winner; neck and neck. Sometimes used specifically in relation to a contest during which each of two competitors continually regains the lead. Also as adverb. [Origin uncertain]
<1832 “There we were at rip and tuck, up one tree and down another.”—Westward Ho! by J. K. Paulding, I. page 172>
<1836 “Thar we had it; up and down; nip and tuck; who should and who shouldn’t, ‘til you’d er thought the very yerth a comin to an eende.”—Humor of the Old Deep South by A. P. Hudson, page 17>
<1845 “The boys used to say, it was nip and tuck between Jack . . . and Castro, who would do the most foolhardy things.”—American Whig Review, November, page 514>
<1857 “ by the head, and the dog got him by the tail, and it was nip and tuck, pull Dick, pull devil.”—Knickerbocker, Vol. 50, page 498>
<1892 “It was a nip-and-tuck race.”—in Big Game North America, page 92>
<1937 “On the current lists of non-fiction best-sellers ‘Live Alone and Like It’ has been running nip and tuck with ‘How to Make Friends and Influence People.’”—The Nation (New York), 27 February, page 227/1>
<1948 “It is nip and tuck whether such a last great achievement of the bipartisan foreign policy can be ratified before . . . the Presidential race.”—The Economist, 8 May, page764/2>
<1988 “10–1 chance Dominator . . . overcame Foretop in a nip and tuck struggle to the line.”—Greyhound Star, June, page 34/5>
<2001 “In a game that would decide the group winners it was nip and tuck up to 10–10.”—Weston & Worle News (Electronic Edition), 19 July>
<2005 “From then on, it was nip and tuck with the lead constantly changing, and with seventeen seconds left, Nuneaton were still in arrears.”—Coventry Evening Telegraph (England), 13 January>
<2008 “It will be nip and tuck but I'm very pleased with our position.”—Daily Mail (London), 2 January>
<2011 “However, Erdogan's brickbats come amid a nip and tuck electoral race between him and Turkey's opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu . .. “—Kuwait News Agency (KUNA), 12 May>
(quotes from the Oxford English Dictionary and archived sources)
Ken G – June 7, 2011