The Grammarphobia Blog

Spick-and-span

Q: I realize that the phrase “spick-and-span” means spotless, but I don’t see what the words “spick” and “span” have to do with cleanliness. Do you know the origin of the expression?

A: “Spick-and-span” (sometimes “spic-and-span”) dates back to the 17th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The first published reference is in The Diary of Samuel Pepys (1665): “My Lady Batten walking through the dirty lane with new spicke and span white shoes.”

The Barnhart Concise Dictionary of Etymology says the expression is a shortening of an older phrase, “spick-and-span new,” from about 1580. In the 16th century, this meant as new as a newly made nail or spike (the “spick”) and a fresh chip of wood (“span”). The latter part of the phrase was borrowed from the Old Icelandic spann-nyr (“new chip”).

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