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Spick and span

Q From Kevin Wilson: What are the origins of the expression spick and span?

A It’s a strange expression, isn’t it? People have been playing about with it for several hundred years, and the words on which it was based have long since gone out of the language.

The oldest form seems to have been spann-nyr, which is Old Norse for a fresh chip of wood, one just carved from timber by the woodman’s axe, so the very epitome of something new. (Nyr is our modern new, while spann is a chip, the source of our spoon, an implement that was originally always made from wood, so that wooden spoon is a retronym.) By about 1300 the Old Norse phrase had started to appear in English in the form span-new, a form that lasted into the nineteenth century.

This evolved by the sixteenth century into an elaborated form similar to the modern one: spick and span new, still with the old sense of something so new as to be pristine and unused. Spick here is a nail or spike. This form seems to have been inspired by a Dutch expression, spiksplinternieuw, which referred to a ship that was freshly built, so with all-new nails and timber. It is first found in Sir Thomas North’s translation of Plutarch’s Lives in 1579, “They were all in goodly gilt armours, and brave purple cassocks apon [upon] them, spicke, and spanne newe.”

By the middle of the following century, it had been shortened to our modern spick and span. It had also shifted sense to our current one, for something so neat and clean that it looks new and unused. Samuel Pepys is the first recorded user, in his diary for 15 November 1665: “My Lady Batten walking through the dirty lane with new spicke and span white shoes.”

In modern times, it was borrowed in the United States by Procter and Gamble as a trademark for a household cleaning product, Spic and Span, whose spelling has led some people to wonder whether it might be a disguised racial slur, from the derogatory term Spic for a Hispanic person. That’s certainly not true, but the trademark (and the slang term) have together encouraged an alternative spelling of spic in the phrase.

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Page created 24 Jan. 2004

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 24 January 2004.