You cut a nick into a stick to mark a moment. Then, at the end of the time being measured, you make another nick.
To do a thing at the last possible moment is to do it within that second nick, “in the nick of time.”
Millions of us have been using this phrase since the year 1580, but very few know the story behind it. You are now one of the chosen few who possess the arcane knowledge of the nick on a stick.
But why do we say, “nick of time” instead of “notch of time”? If nick and notch mean the same thing, why haven’t we been saying for 443 years, “This money arrived in the notch of time.”
We say nick because “nick” ends with a sharper, cleaner sound than “notch.” Say it out loud. “nick-nick-nick.” “notch-notch-notch.” “nick-nick-nick.” “notch-notch-notch.”
“Nick” sounds like a sharp, narrow cut, shaped like a V, narrow and specific. But “notch” sounds softer and wider, with an indistinct bottom shaped like the letter U, a bite taken out of an apple.
But nick doesn’t have a V in it, and notch doesn’t have a U. So what’s going on?
The letters V and U are graphemes, visual letters in the alphabet. But the meaning of a word is not determined by the look of its letters, but by the sounds they make within the word. Those sounds are called phonemes.
When describing a phoneme, don’t say the name of the letter. Make only the sound represented by the letter. The letter is a grapheme. The sound it makes is a phoneme.
The sound of a word has a lot to do with how it makes us feel, even when we are reading silently.
This is incredibly important when choosing names for products and services and companies. It is also important when writing messages that you hope will persuade.
Ad writers, song writers, speech writers, and poets, are you listening?
Phonemes with abrupt, clean sounds are “p” “b” “t” “d” “ck” and “g”. The visual graphemes that visually represent those phonemes are P, B, T, D, K, and G. “p” “b” “t” “d” “ck” and “g” are known as the stops, or plosives. This is because all the air is stopped, then released with a plosion: “Kate kicked a kite. nick-nick-nick.” The grapheme is called a K, but the final phoneme in “nick” is “ck”.
The “tch” sound in “notch” is an affricate, a sound that begins as a stop and releases as a fricative, a sound that will hiss, hush, or buzz, like “f” “v” “s” “th” “z” “sh” “j” and “h”. The indistinct ending of the sound is what causes us to hear something less sharply defined than we hear in “nick.”
We could go on for at least 30 more minutes describing the 44 sounds that make up the English language and discussing the conceptual ideas we unconsciously associate with each of those 44 sounds, but right now my interest is elsewhere.
I want you to return with me to the title of today’s Monday Morning Memo, “Living in the Nick of Time.”
Do you remember the Monday Morning Memo from 8 weeks ago, July 17, 2023? Today’s Monday Morning Memo is a callback to that memo. A callback is a powerful tool in storytelling because it deepens the understanding of the audience by giving them a new context to consider.
When you end with a callback to the beginning, this is called “going full circle.”
In the words of T.S. Eliot,
“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”
Here is what I told you on July 17th:
“You cannot suffer the past or future because they do not exist. What you are suffering is your memory and your imagination.”
You cut a nick on a stick to mark a moment. At the end of the time being measured, you make another nick. To do a thing at the last possible moment is to do it inside that second nick, “in the nick of time.”
You are living in the nick of time. Every moment of your life is lived in the nick, that sharp bottom of the V cut into the stick of time by the knife of the present.
All the little moments in life add up to your life. If you don’t get it right, nothing else matters.
Roy H. Williams
PS – Having gone full circle, and ended by revisiting the title of today’s memo, does “Living in the Nick of Time” mean something different now than it did when you first read it?
Forty years ago, when Lori Poland was only three, she was kidnapped from her front yard, molested, and left for dead at the bottom of a remote mountain outhouse. By chance, after three days, a bird watcher answering the call of nature heard the little girl whimpering 12 feet below. “What are you doing there?” he called down. “I live here,” the confused child answered. Today, married with children of her own, Lori is CEO of the National Foundation to END Child Abuse and Neglect, known as EndCAN. As roving reporter Rotbart notes, Lori is also a striking example of how it’s possible to build a purpose-driven career and give meaning to life’s misfortunes. Listen in as Lori shares her unique approach for turning adversity — whatever the source — into strength. MondayMorningRadio.com