Nip it in the bud

Stop that this instant.

Dear Word Detective:  My husband’s grandmother, who lived to be 99-1/2, always used the phrase “just nip it in the bud.”  We were wondering where this originated.  I know I can look it up elsewhere; however, I love the way you tell a story! — Meredith.

Well, I do my best.  But I’m wondering whether you mean the stories about the development of words and phrases, or the stories about the cats, the dogs, and our decrepit house. Maybe I should try harder to merge the two narratives.  Anybody know how many cats Julius Caesar had?  Shakespeare was pet-friendly, after a fashion (“The cat will mew and dog will have his day,” Hamlet, Act V), although he certainly wouldn’t have won any awards from the ASPCA (“Fillet of a fenny snake, In the cauldron boil and bake; Eye of newt and toe of frog, Wool of bat and tongue of dog, Adder’s fork and blind-worm’s sting, Lizard’s leg and owlet’s wing…,” Macbeth, Act IV).  Note to self: pick up some wool of bat on the way home.

To “nip something in the bud” means to stop it in an early stage of its development, before it can mature.  The phrase first appeared in print, as far as we know, in the late 16th century (with “bloom” standing in for “bud”), and it’s still going strong.  A search of Google News at the moment produces 457 hits for “nipped in the bud,” ranging from coverage of our so-called economy (“But the emerging recovery among nine Midwestern states … was nipped in the bud,” Kansas City Star) to the drearily inevitable punning headline on a news story about a pot bust (“Large marijuana garden nipped in the bud,” KTVL, Oregon).

The roots of “to nip in the bud” are, as it happens, horticultural.  Growers frequently “nip” (pinch or snip off) new buds on plants and trees to stop them from developing for one reason or another, often to force the plant to put its energies to more productive uses.  (I have, as you may have guessed, just exhausted my knowledge of horticulture.)  In any case, this gardening practice made such a good metaphor for stopping something before it really got going that it’s been in constant use in that sense since the 1600s.

Interestingly, something being “nipped in the bud” back then was sometimes considered a bad thing (“Dost thou approach to censure our delights, And nip them in the bud?”, 1658), but for the past few centuries “to nip it in the bud” has been seen as most often necessary and desirable (“This was a very dangerous thing and should be nipped in the bud immediately, he felt,” 1998).

The “nip” in the phrase, incidentally, is the common verb “to nip,” meaning “to pinch or bite” or “to seize, separate, remove,” and comes from Germanic roots.  When Grandpa called children “little nippers,” he was using a term that originally meant “pickpocket” (from “nipping,” or seizing the victim’s wallet).  A “nip in the air” is the pinch or bite of the cold, and the “nip” of brandy one takes to ward off a chill comes from “nipperkin,” originally a measure equal to a very small amount (just a “pinch”) of liquor, which itself is almost certainly related to “nip.”

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