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The New Year is approaching. What else is new? Or a chip off the old block

Many things are new. The vocabulary of the Germanic languages shows its great potential when new objects have to be described. Even to characterize people wearing shiningly new clothes English has a picturesque phrase, namely, he/she has come (or stepped) out of the bandbox. A bandbox, as dictionaries explain, was a light box, made of pasteboard or thin flexible pieces of wood and paper, for holding caps, bonnets, or other light articles of attire: so called because originally made to contain the starched bands (that is, ruffs) commonly worn in the sixteen-hundreds (so The Century Dictionary). A person exquisitely neat and dressed in clothes seemingly straight from a tailor’s shop does look as though he or she has just left a bandbox of old. Originally, mainly or only clergymen kept their linen in such boxes, and, when something “came out” of them, it looked “very smart, spick and span.” Spick and span, a most curious idiom! I’ll leave it for dessert.

“This is the front pane of the famous eighth-century Franks casket. We can see the ancient blacksmith Wayland or Völund(r) in it. No doubt, everything he produced in his furnace was ‘fire-new.'” Image credit: Franks Casket front by John W. Schulze. CC by 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Perhaps the most common English expression for something quite new is brand-new, occasionally appearing in the form bran-new (but this is only a phonetic variant). Today, brand is perhaps remembered mostly not as “a piece of burning wood” (though compare firebrand), but as “trademark” (brand name springs to mind at once) and the verb (for example, to brand cattle; those interested in cattle branding may look up the origin of the word maverick on the Internet). In Old English, brand also meant “sword” (Italian brando “sword” is a borrowing from Germanic), perhaps with reference to the gleaming blade and flashing when wielded. Such is at least the prevailing opinion. Other Germanic languages had the same word. In Old Germanic poetry, swords were called flames and gleams of battle and were described as flashing, shining, blazing, and the like. If we look at the German for burn, we will find brennen. Then the connection between bran-d and bren-nen (by ablaut) will become immediately obvious. In English, r follows the vowel in the word burn, but this is a peculiar English change. When vowels and consonants play leapfrog, this process is called metathesis.

“We are used to branding cattle, but not too long ago branding people was a common punishment.” Image credit: Brandmarkung der Soldaten, Brandzeichen by Johann Jacob von Wallhausen & Flavius Vegetius Renatus. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The idea of brand-new seems to be “fresh out of the furnace.” The cautious Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology says perhaps about this connection, but it also says perhaps about why brand also meant “sword.” Most likely, the situation requires no such guarded remarks. In 1876, Frank Chance, an active and successful etymologist of the second half of the nineteenth century, participated in the debate about the origin of the adjective brand-new and took to task a certain W. M., who attacked Archbishop Richard C. Trench, famous for his study of words and proverbs and for the idea that inspired what we know as the OED. I will quote the opening salvo for the sake of its style. The same pugnacious rhetoric marked the publications of Walter W. Skeat, James A. H. Murray, and many of their contemporaries. “W. M. is indubitably wrong, and Archbishop Trench right.” Among many other things, Chance collected words like brand-new: Dutch brand-nieuw, German funkel-neu and funken-neu (Funke “spark”), that is, so new as to glitter or give out sparks.

Adjectives with a reinforcing first element are numerous, but the message of the reinforcement is not always clear: consider Engl. stockstill (exactly which stock is meant?) and German fuchs-teufels-wild “furious”: Fuchs is “fox,” Teufel is “devil,” and wild is “wild,” but are foxes known for outbursts of bad temper, or does this fuchs have nothing to do with foxes? Many German adjectives synonymous with funkelneu have –nagel “nail” inserted in the middle. Is the reference to a straight and shining nail or to an object as though just nailed together? Dutch is instructive because in addition to nagel-nieuw it has a series of adjectives with elements denoting “splinter.” Splinters or perhaps spikes in this role also occur in the Scandinavian languages. They bring us closer to spick and span.

The origin of this somewhat enigmatic phrase and its close analogs has been discussed for centuries. Some of the early conjectures are curious, even “wild.” Horne Tooke (1736-1812), the author of many fanciful derivations, wrote that spick and span new means “shining new from the warehouse.” He combined a Dutch word with a German one, but it remains unclear what the warehouse has to do with the whole. The Swede Johan Ihre (1707-1780), a learned and reliable scholar, explained the analog of spick and span as a chip just cut. He had a much better idea than the one brought forward by the German etymologist Georg Wachter, even though he looked upon Wachter’s work as his source of inspiration. Wachter traced span to a verb meaning “to milk,” so that the result was “new as the first milk after calving.” (Those who know the German word Spanferkel “sucking pig” will recognize the misleading root.) Ihre, it appears, hit the nail on the head. English philologists also knew the true origin of spick and span long ago. The dialectal synonym spliternew, Low German spiker-neu, and Icelandic spann “chip; spoon” told the researchers that the English adjective has something to do with spikes (or chips) and spoons. (Old spoons were, naturally, wooden. We too have plastic silverware.)

“Archbishop Richard Chenevix Trench. We owe him the idea of what later became the OED.” Image credit: Drawing of Richard Chenevix Trench, December 1, 1863 by John Richardson Jackson. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The binomial was spick and span; new was added later for emphasis. Span-new appeared in English dialects as early as the thirteenth century. Later the phrase was extended, and spick and span new appeared: it must have been tempting to add an alliterating near-synonym to the first adjective, even though three-element phrases of this type are all but non-existent. Usually we encounter phrases like stone-deaf, stone-broke, and the already cited stock-still. The source of spick-new is Scandinavian. In the pre-Skeat editions of Webster’s dictionary, the following explanation was given: “Quite new; that is, as new as a spike or nail just made, and a chip just split.” Engl. spick “spike” existed, but Swedish spik means “nail,” which returns us to German funkelnagelneu. Dutch has spik-splellder-nieuw and spik-splinter-nieuw. At one time, Engl. spelder “splinter or ship” also turned up. Frank Chance says: “Chips and shavings are commonly new, as they are usually burned up as fast as made.” But this explanation is hardly needed, for shavings are new by definition, whether burned or not, and, while cutting wood, we see chips flying in every direction; those are also new.

“Were such ruffs kept in bandboxes?” Image credit: Equestrian Portrait of Philip III by Diego Velázquez. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

It will be seen that phrases like brand-new, “nail-new,” and “shavings-new” are current all over Germanic. Some must have ben borrowed. Is it possible that at one time they were part of the lingua franca, that is, the professional language of itinerant carpenters, blacksmiths, and other artisans? I suggested a similar idea in connection with the etymology of the English word ajar, which too has a puzzling number of seemingly superfluous near-homonyms, all meaning the same (see the post for August 22, 2012). Those who have access to my etymological dictionary will find more musings on this subject in the entry adz(e).

Who said that there is nothing new under the moon?

Featured image credit: “Full Moon Evening Sky Moonlight Moon Mood” by kasabubu. CC0 via Pixabay

Recent Comments

  1. John Cowan

    stock in stock-still is surely ‘a piece of wood’, corresponding to and alliterating with stone. see oed2 A.I.i.abc.

  2. L Okkerman

    spik-splellder-nieuw is a small typo, it should be spik-spelder-nieuw I assume, because a splellder isn’t anything in Dutch.
    Great Piece as always!

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