Which is correct, “spic and span” or “spick and span”?

May 19, 2017 | Author: | Posted in Language

Spick and span is the correct spelling of this common phrase. It is often but erroneously written spic and span, owing apparently to a mistaken notion of its derivation.

The original phrase was span-new, which, although little used now, means quite or perfectly new, and which is derived from Old Norse spann (“chip”), and nyr (“new”) . Spannyr still occurs in Icelandic.

Originally span-new signified as bright and new as a freshly cut chip or a splinter of wood just from the hands of the carpenter. “Spick and span new” was merely an emphatic extension of the earlier phrase, spick being an old provincial or colloquial form of spike, a large nail.

Thomas Middleton, a contemporary of Shakespeare, used “spick and span new” in The Family of Love (16o8), and it occurs in John Ford‘s The Lover’s Melancholy (1629) . In Hudibras (1663) Samuel Butler wrote:

Now, while the honour thou has got

Is spick and span new.

When a thing was particularly fresh in appearance it was said to be spick and span new; that is, bright and new as a new spike and a freshly cut splinter. Some authorities suppose the phrase was originally applied to newly built wooden boats.

Those who write the phrase “spic and span” do so on the assumption that the obsolete word for spike was spelled spic. There is no evidence that such was the case, and the examples in the Oxford dictionary indicate that it was always spelled spick.

There was, however, an old word spic, meaning “bacon” or “fat meat.”

 

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