MUNDANE MYSTERIES: What Does “Spick & Span” Actually Mean?

It’s Springtime again! And that means it’s time for “spring cleaning”, in the hopes of making your home, car, office, etc., look super clean & like new. Your goal should be to make your place look “spick & span”, you might say. But what does that even really mean, “spick & span”?

The full phrase was actually “spick & span new”. Before originally, it started as just “span-new”, first used as far back as the early 14th century. “Span-new” was derived from the Old Norse term “spán-nýr“: spán meant “chip” (as in a wood chip); nýr meant “new”. So basically, “span-new” meant “as new as a freshly cut wood chip”.

Spick, on the other hand, is thought to have come from several old words that all meant “nail” or “related to a spike”. Across the various spellings of “spick” across Middle Swedish, Dutch, and also Old Norse, the word was used pretty much the same way “span-new” was used in English, as a way to describe something so pristine that it had to have been newly created.

Somewhere along the way, our English-speaking forebearers blended the two expressions to create “spick & span new”. Sir Thomas North was the first person that we’re aware of who used the phrase, including it in his 1579 translation of Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Grecians & Romans. As time passed, however, the “new” eventually got cut. The first usage of the phrase “spick & span” as we know it today was a diary entry by writer Samuel Pepys from 1665, where he wrote of his friend, Lady Batten, as she was “walking through the dirty lane with new spick & span white shoes.”

The original intent of the phrase was actually in reference to things that were genuinely new. But over the years, the expression’s meaning has relaxed to mean anything that appears to be in its original condition. So, when you say something is “spick & span” now, it’s understood that you aren’t really implying that it’s brand new, merely that it looks like it’s never been used. So, now that you know why we say it…good luck making it a reality in your spring cleaning projects!

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