Q From Ruth A Halfon, Israel: I’ve heard the expression brand spanking new many times and am curious about its origin. Any ideas?
A These days, spanking in expressions like that can be said to mean something like “extremely, strikingly, or remarkably”, but really it’s no more than a flag to give extra force or emphasis to what you’re saying.
The word appears in English about the middle of the seventeenth century, but then implied something that was exceptionally good or especially fine, often something showy or smart. It may have come from a Danish or Norwegian word spanke, to strut (it seems not to be connected with the more usual sense of spank, to slap, which may be imitative). Later on horses often had the word applied to them, to mean one capable of moving very fast, but particularly in a smart way.
Later still, it could mean no more than moving fast in any kind of conveyance, with no link to horses. Frank T Bullen wrote in The Log of a Sea-waif in 1899: “A large canoe ... was coming off to us at a spanking rate”. H G Wells used it in 1904: “The char-a-banc ... was clattering along at a spanking pace” [char-a-banc, an early form of bus, used for pleasure trips].
The idea behind the modern sense in brand spanking new is not so very different from its first use. The phrase itself is first recorded from the middle of the nineteenth century.
Many people associate the phrase in particular with the arrival of a new-born baby, who often has to be slapped gently to start him or her breathing. However, British speakers would use slap rather than spank here, as the latter implies punishment. There may well be a link of some sort here, or perhaps a transferred mental image, that has reinforced the existing term in this special case, but it’s not directly the origin of the phrase.