Do you know what the phrase spick and span really means?
Many of us wish for houses that are spick and span, but when you make that wish, do you know what you’re really asking for? Nails and wood chips!
Spick and span means “neat and clean.” For example, After Dante’s mom cleaned his room, it was spick and span for the first time in months.
But the term’s origins have little to do with dusting and mopping.
The term actually pairs two nouns that are now obsolete. Spick used to mean “a nail or spike”; span used to mean “a wooden chip.” The modern word spoon can also be traced back to span because spoons used to be made from wood.
Back in the 1500s, a ship was called spick and span if every nail and chip in it were brand new. That seafaring meaning started to get lost in the mid-1800s, but as late as 1903, a slang dictionary described spick and span as “quite fresh; brand new; as a ‘spike and chip’ from the workman’s hands.” So at that time, at least some folks must have known the meanings of spike and chip.
The 1903 dictionary and the Oxford English Dictionary also give some variations on spick and span. We see speck and span, spick-span new, span-new, and, best of all, span-fire new.
So the next time you describe something you just bought, try “span-fire new.” You might put that term back in fashion.
And that was your quick and dirty tip: Spick and span was originally used to describe the fresh nails and wood on new ships.
Ammer, Christine. Spick and Span. American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, 2nd ed. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013.
Farmer, John S., and Henley, William E. Slang and Its Analogues Past and Present: A Dictionary, Historical and Comparative, of the Heterodox Speech of All Classes of Society for More Than Three Hundred Years. With Synonyms in English, French, German, Italian, Etc. Vol. 6. 1903. http://bit.ly/1In4wgg (accessed April 1, 2015).
Oxford English Dictionary, online edition. Oxford University Press. http://j.mp/1HjTCrs (subscription required, accessed April 1, 2015).