What does the expression “spick and span” mean and How did it originate?

For the past two hundred years we have been using the phrase “spick and span” to mean very trim and smart, thoroughly neat and orderly, having the appearance of newness, but for the two hundred years preceding that, or from the middle of the sixteenth century to the middle of the eighteenth century, the phrase was always “spick and span new,” and had no other meaning than absolutely and wholly new.

The phrase has had an interesting history. It started, so far as the records show, about 1300 as just “span-new,” meaning perfectly new, or as new as a freshly cut chip, for “span,” in olden days, meant a chip. At that tinie, chips were used for spoons, so “span-new” really meant a newly cut spoon, one that had not yet been soiled by use.

“Spick” was not added until late in the sixteenth century, presumably for no better reason than alliteration. A “spick” really meant a splinter, or, also, a spike.

Actually, it had no particular meaning when added to “span-new,” but it would be interesting if I could say that the original purpose of the “spick,” or splinter, was to impale meat, as we use a fork today, when the “span” was laid aside.

About Karen Hill

Karen Hill is a freelance writer, editor, and columnist. Born in New York, her work has appeared in the Examiner, Yahoo News, Buzzfeed, among others.

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