Idiom origin: ‘spick and span’

If you’re looking for a definitive explanation for the origin of spick and span, you may not find it here. However, we can share a few possible theories about how this idiom originated.

This idiom finds its origins in Nordic etymology. The noun spic has had many meanings, including: a side of bacon, a floret of lavender, a nail or spike and a thatching spar. However, nowadays, the word is rarely used without being accompanied span.  

Span also has several meanings, including as a measurement of distance or time, a measure of butter, a fetter or chain and a chip of wood.

There are several reasons why this phrase might have originated but none are certain. One thing that is known, however, is that the phrase is very old and actually began as spick and span-new. The first known record of this phrase was found in Sir Thomas North’s 1579 translation of Plutarch’s text, Lives of the noble Grecians and Romanes.

“They were all in goodly gilt armours, and brave purple cassocks apon them, spicke and spanne newe.”

Spicke and spanne newe was first printed as spick and span in Samuel Pepys’ 1665 Diary:

“My Lady Batten walking through the dirty lane with new spicke and span white shoes.”

The alliteration in the phrase suggests that at least one of the words alluded to cleanliness, while the other just followed along. The most common assertion is that spick refers to a spike or nail. In the 16th century, nails were made of iron and tarnished easily, so it follows that new nails were considered ‘clean’. Supporting this idea is the phrase neat as a pin.

Furthering the theory of cleanliness attached to this phrase, the word spoon derives from spon (a variant of span). In early American etymology, spike and spon was the term for a knife and fork. And as we all recognise, utensils have long been used for hygiene reasons.

There also exists an Old Dutch word, spikspeldernieuw, which refers to newly made ships.

While the actual origin of spick and span isn’t known, this theory of the etymology behind the phrase does provide some interesting information for us to think about.

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Amelia Theodorakis
Amelia Theodorakis
A writer and communications specialist with eight years’ in startups, SMEs, not-for-profits and corporates. Interests and expertise in gender studies, history, finance, banking, human interest, literature and poetry.
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