The Grammarphobia Blog

A lick and a promise

Q: My mom, who is nearly 90, says things like this: “The kitchen floor needs to be waxed, but I only have time to give it a lick and a promise.” Where does the phrase “a lick and a promise” come from?

A: The expression “a lick and a promise” is at least 200 years old. Why “lick”? The Oxford English Dictionary says one meaning of the word is “a slight and hasty wash.”

In this sense, according to the OED, “lick” usually appears in the phrase “a lick and a promise.” (The “promise” signifies an intention to do a better job sometime later.)

The dictionary’s earliest recorded use of “a lick and a promise” is from Walter White’s travel book All Round the Wrekin (1860): “We only gives the cheap ones a lick and a promise.” (The Wrekin is a hill in Shropshire, England.)

However, the word sleuth Barry Popik has found almost half a dozen earlier examples of “a lick and a promise.” Here’s the earliest, from the December 1811 issue of The Critical Review, a journal founded by Tobias Smollett:

“The Prince Regent comes in for a blessing, too, but as one of the Serio-Comico-Clerico’s nurses, who are so fond of over-feeding little babies, would say, it is but a lick and a promise.”

The “lick” in the expression was originally used by itself, to mean “a dab of paint” or the like, “a hasty tidying up,” or “a casual amount of work,” the OED says.

The earliest example in writing of this sense of “lick,” Oxford says, comes from James Maidment’s A Packet of Pestilent Pasquils (circa 1648), a collection of Scottish literary oddities: “We’ll mark them with a lick of tarre.”

Why is a cursory slap of paint or a casual attempt at a job called a “lick”? There could be a connection with another meaning of the word, which the OED defines as “a small quantity, so much as may be had by licking.”

This usage dates back to the 17th century and is often used in negative constructions: “he hain’t worked a lick” … “couldn’t cook a lick” … “didn’t have a lick of sense” … “couldn’t read a lick,” and so on.

While we’re on the subject, there’s another kind of “lick” altogether, the one that means “a smart blow,” in the words of the OED. This use of “lick” dates back to the late 17th century.

Oxford’s earliest example comes from Jean-Baptiste Tavernier’s A Collection of Several Relations & Treatises Singular and Curious (1680): “[He] gave the Fellow half a dozen good Licks with his Cane.”

And finally (since we seem to be on a roll here) comes the “lick” that means a short solo, usually improvised, in jazz or dance music. This one is of a much younger vintage.

The OED’s first example is from a weekly music newspaper once published in London, the Melody Maker (1932): “They manage to steal a ‘lick’ from an American record.”

This more recent example is from the Toronto Globe and Mail (1970): “The blues riff is even better, full of Charlie Parker-like bebop licks.”

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