Rantings of a sub-editor

November 16, 2010

Putting the knickers in spick and span

Filed under: spelling,spick and span — substuff @ 10:26 am
Tags: ,

Yes, that’s correct, according to the OED, anyway. I’d always assumed it was “spic and span”, but it seems I’ve been getting my Hispanic racial slurs mixed up with… well, apparently, the parallels between spikiness and cleanliness.

Anyone know where the phrase comes from? The most informative explanation I’ve found comes from The Phrase Finder. It says:

The alliteration in the phrase suggests the possibility that that one of the two words alluded to cleanliness and freshness and that the other just followed along. Which one is most associated with the qualities of spick and span? The suggestions most frequently made are that spick is a variant of spike or nail. In the 16th century nails were made of iron and soon tarnished. It is quite plausible that new nails would have become synonymous with cleanliness.  We have the phrase as neat as a new pin, which has just that meaning.

Anyway, anyway, this post is mostly an excuse to share an unexpectedly saucy discovery that I made this morning, in the name of research. While Googling both spellings, I came across a magazine called Spick and Span. I assumed, understandably, that this would be a magazine on cleaning, or housekeeping, or somesuch (kudos to me for clicking on it anyway). Wrong! It’s a glamour mag from the 1950s, specialising (from what I can tell while in the office) in cheeky pictures of young ladies with their stockings and suspenders on show. Well I never.

However, flash their knickers as they will, the ladies of Spick and Span don’t quite have the whole subject covered. They have competition from a cleaning brand, Spic and Span. That’s right, no “k”.

But do we care? Personally, I’m going with the leggy ladies. They look as if they know what they’re talking about.

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4 Comments »

  1. Thanks for sharing the results of your research! I knew spic only as a slur; I didn’t know it could be a variant of spick. So the cleaning brand looks strange to me. As for the magazine: it’s funny how even the price tag looks saucy somehow.

    Comment by Stan — November 16, 2010 @ 10:58 am | Reply

  2. That’d be two shillings well spent, I’m sure. [Sid James laugh]

    For this sort of thing, I often find the Online Etymology Dictionary handy. It seems to agree about the spick/spike/nail/newly sharp thing.

    Comment by Tom Freeman — November 16, 2010 @ 11:17 am | Reply

  3. Back in the late sixties, I worked briefly in a newsagents, privately owned. A gentleman, a genitaliaman, would of a week come in to buy his copies of Spick and Span, both of which were kept behind the counter. No top shelf in those days. Also, women seemed to have welded crotches from the glimpses I had.

    Comment by DOT — November 16, 2010 @ 7:20 pm | Reply

  4. Glamour! Humour! Pep!

    That’s where we went wrong, y’see. Plenty of glamour in this celebrity-obsessed modern world, and thankfully a little humour. But what happened to all the pep?

    Comment by Russell — January 26, 2011 @ 3:29 pm | Reply


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