nickel

[ nik-uh l ]
/ ˈnɪk əl /

noun

Chemistry. a hard, silvery-white, ductile and malleable metallic element, allied to iron and cobalt, not readily oxidized: used chiefly in alloys, in electroplating, and as a catalyst in organic synthesis. Symbol: Ni; atomic weight: 58.71; atomic number: 28; specific gravity: 8.9 at 20°C.
a cupronickel coin of the U.S., the 20th part of a dollar, equal to five cents.
a nickel coin of Canada, the 20th part of a dollar, equal to five cents.

verb (used with object), nick·eled, nick·el·ing or (especially British) nick·elled, nick·el·ling.

to cover or coat with nickel; nickel-plate.

adjective

Slang. costing or worth five dollars: a nickel bag of heroin.

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Origin of nickel

1745–55; < Swedish, abstracted from kopparnickel < German Kupfernickel niccolite, literally, copper demon (so called because though looking like copper it yielded none); Nickel demon, special use of short form of Nikolaus proper name. Cf. Old Nick, pumpernickel
Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2020

ABOUT THIS WORD:

What else does nickel mean?

Nickel is a slang term for “five” of anything, especially a small bag of drugs costing five dollars or five-year prison sentence.

Where does nickel come from?

The origins of the word nickel for the metal and element are uncertain, but it likely comes from a 1600s German nickname for the devil.

Nickel later became associated with the number 5 in 1886 when the coins made from the metal were worth five cents in the United States. Prior to that, nickels were worth either one or three cents. This nickel spawned a whole new set of phrases and expressions: A nickelodeon, for instance, referred to a jukebox that played a song for a nickel or a movie theater that only charged that much for admission.

Over time, many things related to the number five came to be dubbed nickel. By 1946, nickel came to refer to five dollars in the US—and with some semantic inflation, if you, a nickel referred to 500 dollars by 1974.

Nickel, as in doing a nickel or “serving a five-year prison sentence,” was used as early as 1953. It was sometimes combined with dime for a 10-year sentence (e.g., doing a nickel-and-dime, or 15 years). This is not to be confused with nickel-and-dime as in a small-scale business or being ripped off with small up-charges.

By 1966, a nickel bag was referring to a $5 bag of drugs, such as weed or heroin. A dime bag, by contrast, was $10 of drugs.

The trend of naming things related to the number five wasn’t just limited to commercial products. By 1980, the fifth cornerback of a five-man defensive line in American football was known as a nickelback (no relation to the oft-maligned Canadian rock band Nickelback).

How is nickel used in real life?

The slang nickel, in its senses of a small bag of drugs or a five-year jail stint, is associated with hip-hop culture. 

This association goes back decades to tracks like “Road to the Riches” by Kool G Rap & DJ Polo (1989) and “Flavor for the Non Believers” by Mobb Deep (1993). In them, the artists boast about the money they made selling drugs: nickels and dimes. A lot of rappers play on the literal and slang meanings of nickel like 2Pac in “I Get Around” (1993) where he raps: “Trying to make a dollar out of fifteen cents (a dime and a nickel).”

These songs (and countless others) popularized the slang meaning of nickel for a bag of drugs. There’s some debate as to whether a nickel refers to a $5 bag of drugs or a fifth of an ounce (of cocaine). In the film Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back (2001), the character Jay sells a nickel bag for $15, suggesting it’s a fifth—or he could just be ripping his customer off.

A subset of Houston-based rappers use the Nickel to refer to the Fifth Ward of the city, a historically Black neighborhood on Houston’s east side (e.g., “Still rollin’ through the Nickel …” by the group Convicts, “I Ain’t Going Back,” 1991). Skid Row in L.A. also sometimes goes by the nickname the Nickel for its section of Fifth Street.

Nickel also shows up frequently in the common rhetorical expression If I had a nickel for every time … 

 

Interesting, nickel is often used generally to refer to all of the money someone has—as in, they took every last nickel of her savings.

Fun fact: C’est nickel (pronounced nee-kell) is a common French expression meaning “It’s great.” It’s based on the way nickel, the metal, gleams bright. 

Note

This content is not meant to be a formal definition of this term. Rather, it is an informal summary that seeks to provide supplemental information and context important to know or keep in mind about the term’s history, meaning, and usage.

Example sentences from the Web for nickel

British Dictionary definitions for nickel

nickel
/ (ˈnɪkəl) /

noun

a malleable ductile silvery-white metallic element that is strong and corrosion-resistant, occurring principally in pentlandite and niccolite: used in alloys, esp in toughening steel, in electroplating, and as a catalyst in organic synthesis. Symbol: Ni; atomic no: 28; atomic wt: 58.6934; valency: 0, 1, 2, or 3; relative density: 8.902; melting pt: 1455°C; boiling pt: 2914°C
a US and Canadian coin and monetary unit worth five cents

verb -els, -elling or -elled or US -els, -eling or -eled

(tr) to plate with nickel

Word Origin for nickel

C18: shortened form of German Kupfernickel niccolite, literally: copper demon, so called by miners because it was mistakenly thought to contain copper
Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 2012 Digital Edition © William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012

Medical definitions for nickel

nickel
[ nĭkəl ]

n. Symbol Ni

A silvery hard ductile metallic element used in alloys and in corrosion-resistant surfaces. Atomic number 28.
The American Heritage® Stedman's Medical Dictionary Copyright © 2002, 2001, 1995 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company.

Scientific definitions for nickel

nickel
[ nĭkəl ]

Ni

A silvery, hard, ductile metallic element that occurs in ores along with iron or magnesium. It resists oxidation and corrosion and is used to make alloys such as stainless steel. It is also used as a coating for other metals. Atomic number 28; atomic weight 58.69; melting point 1,453°C; boiling point 2,732°C; specific gravity 8.902; valence 0, 1, 2, 3. See Periodic Table.
The American Heritage® Science Dictionary Copyright © 2011. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

Idioms and Phrases with nickel

nickel

see not worth a dime (plugged nickel).

The American Heritage® Idioms Dictionary Copyright © 2002, 2001, 1995 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.