Where does the expression “spit and polish” come from and What does it mean?

The expression “spit and polish” means: Finical smartness or ornamentation; furbishment; trimness.

But whereas in the early nineteenth century, and many years before, the British officer, naval and military, demanded such finicky smartness, as if by the application of much spittle and elbow grease with a polishing agent, by the latter half of that century many naval officers, at least, regarded it as a wasteful affectation, having no bearing on efficiency.

The first to voice that disapproval, and, incidentally, to record the term, was Admiral Lord Charles Beres-ford.

In his Memoirs (1914), telling of his first independent command in 1873, he said that though at the outset he had a large working party holystone the decks until they were “as clean as a hound’s tooth,” from that day onward “I set myself steadily against bright-work and spit-and-polish.”

And he added, “Under the spitand-polish system no doubt the men take a pride in keeping the ship bright, but such a process involves perpetual extra bother and worry, which are quite unnecessary.”

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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