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Spick and span: a suspicious hybrid

Etymology is a peaceful area of study. But read the following: “Spick and Span”—these words have been sadly tortured by our etymologists—we shall, therefore, do our best to deliver them from further persecution. Tooke is here more than usually abusive of his predecessors; however, Nemesis, always on the watch, has permitted him to give a lumbering, half Dutch, half German, etymology; of ‘shining new from the warehouse’—as if such simple colloquial terms were formed in this clumsy round-about way. Spick-new is simply nail-new, and span-new, chipnew. Many similar expressions are current in the north of Europe; fire-new, spark-new, splinternew, also used in Cumberland; High German, nagelneu, equivalent to the Lower Saxon spikernew, and various others. The leading idea is that of something quickly produced or used only once.” [Note: Dutch spyker, that is, spijker means “nail,” but its homonym spijker exists. It is a dialectal word from the south of the country for “granary in the loft of a house.”]

That was an extract from an article published in The Quarterly Review for September, 1835. All contributions to such periodicals were anonymous. Whoever wrote the piece enjoyed the vitriolic style typical of nineteenth-century British journalism. The remarks, quoted above, are apt, but, curiously, only one “torturer,” Horne Tooke, is mentioned by name. Tooke, whose two-volume work on etymology has the English title The Diversions of Purley, has often appeared in this blog (16 December 2015; 10 May 2017; and August 2017), invariably in a negative context. In the August post, you can see his portrait and Stephen Goranson’s curious comment.

An ideal place for diversions. This is where the bellicose Horne Tooke worked on his contribution to etymology. Image credit: The ‘Brass Monkey’, Russell Hill Road, Purley by Dr Neil Clifton. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

As I keep repeating, English etymology is a branch of linguistics without history. Thousands of lines about the origin of English words have disappeared in a huge black hole. The belligerent contributor to The Quarterly Review may have missed a few reasonable suggestions about the origin of spick and span. Yet some guesses were indeed wild. In The Gentleman’s Magazine for 1755 (vol. 25, p. 115), an equally learned and equally anonymous correspondent wrote: “Spick and span new… the words want explanation; …which, I presume, are a corruption of the Italian Spiccata da la Spanna, snatched from the hand…. it is well known that our language abounds with Italicisms, and it is probable the expression before us was coined when the English were as much bigoted to Italian fashions, as they now are to those of the French.”

According to Samuel Johnson, spanna meant “to stretch” in Old English (to be sure, such a word could not be an Old English verb!), with span-new emerging as “fresh from the stretchers or frames, alluding to cloth, a very old manufacture of the country; and spick and span is fresh from the spike, or tenter, and frames.” This explanation made its way into the once immensely popular Dictionary of Phrase and Fable by E. Cobham Brewer (1870). Brewer referred to stretchers and hooks and then added Italian spicco “brightness” for good measure and even Dutch spyker.

Image credits: (top) CPRR Flat Head Iron Spike 1868 by Centpacrr. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons. (bottom) A Russian Khokhloma wooden spoon by Winstonza. CC BY-SA 4.0 by Wikimedia Commons.

Span-new already occurred in Middle English and looks like a calque (translation loan) of Old Icelandic spánnýr, literally “new like a chip” (thus, no connection with stretchers!).  Several other guesses may be ignored. In any case, span-new does not mean “newly spun,” as has once been suggested. John Jamieson (1750-1828), the author of a great Scottish dictionary, mentioned split and span, both of which denote a splinter or chip. Before him, Johan Ihre (1707-1780), a distinguished Swedish philologist, translated Swedish sping-spang as “quite new.” Jamieson knew Ihre’s works and in the Supplement cited spang-new. He pointed out the connection between spingla “chip, splinter” and spangla “thin metal plate.” The English phrase would then mean “fire-new.” In Cornwall, they said (and perhaps still say) spack and spang new. By the way, the contributor to The Gentleman’s Magazine also referred to Engl. “fresh from the mint”; brand-new springs to mind too.

We have seen an attempt to trace spick and span to Italian. A fanciful derivation from Latin turned up as late as 1900: spick from spica “an ear of corn” and span from spatium “space, a measure of length” and figuratively “hand.” But the phrase, whatever its ultimate origin, must be Germanic. There is nothing similar in Italian, French, or Spanish. Only Germanic analogs are numerous. Such is German splitter-neu and spannagelneu. Dutch (spik)-spinter-nieuw, Swedish spik och spänn, and Norwegian spik og spenning. Only the Swedish and Norwegian versions are close to English, but, unexpectedly, they do not reproduce the Old Icelandic “archetype.” Dutch spijk– is undoubtedly native; hence the hypothesis that Engl. spick– experienced the influence of Dutch. By the same token, Swedish and Norwegian might have taken their spik from Low German.

Spick and span. Image credit: Good suit by Orbitburco12. CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

But what was so attractive in the Dutch word, and how could it be added to a phrase of rather obviously Scandinavian extraction? We risk returning to Horne Tooke’s warehouse. Span-new causes no trouble. Engl. spoon is a cognate of Icelandic spán “chip,” because the earliest spoons were of course made of wood. Spick is the older form of spike. Something or somebody can be sharp and shining as a new nail. There seems to have been two common North-European idioms, perhaps part of the lingua franca of itinerant workmen: things could be “nail-new” and “spike/spick-new.” Later, a hybrid was formed. Let us also remember spack from Cornwall. If spack and span ever existed, it would have become spick and span, because in words of the ticktack and pit-a-pat type, the first vowel is usually closed and the second open. But a bulky phrase like spick-span new had no chance of survival, and new was dropped. An excellent Swedish dialectal dictionary mentions spik spangande ny, and Skeat cited it. Though the history of the English word is partly obscure, alliteration (sp- ~ sp-) must have played a decisive role in it.

Toward International Spelling Congress: London, May 30, 2018

Since the congress is approaching, I decided not to wait for the “May gleanings” (next week) and answer the letters and comments I received. There is nothing in the discussion of Spelling Reform that has not been said many times, so that what follows is not new either. A correspondent from New York objects to reforming the present system because language, as she believes, should develop naturally, rather than being imposed upon by the Big Brother. This statement is suspicious, even if by language we agree to understand only grammar and usage. The invention of printing made it imperative to follow a certain “standard” norm at the expense of many other “norms.” For instance, though the double negative has not gone anywhere, I don’t know nothin’ is not everybody’s favorite variant. In other cases, the Standard has to bow to popular tastes. As I said is more genteel, but “everybody’s” preference (in the US) is for like I said. So be it. The same is true of who versus whom in American English. Also, when I read in an article by the Associated Press “The crash left the bus laying on its side…,” I realize that by this time one can lie under oath but only lay on one’s back. Too bad, but one cannot always fight to win.

Spelling, unlike oral speech, is not a natural phenomenon. It was invented to reflect people’s pronunciation and can be changed by decree or by consensus, as has been done more than once, also in the English-speaking world. We are told that, if we simplify English spelling, we will destroy our past. Whence this touching dedication to everything that’s old?  Knife, with its k-, I hear, looks so attractive, because it reminds us of the word’s ancient pronunciation. Alas and alack! What about listen from Old Engl. hlystan? Are we much the worse for the absence of initial h and final n? And should we restore y in the middle? Or take acquiesce. Even in Latin, the spelling acquiescere made little sense, because ac– was the remnant of the prefix ad-, but who needs this c and another c before e in English acquiesce?

English is overdue for Spelling Reform. Image credit: Cicero Denounces Catiline by Cesare Maccari. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The most fervent defendants of the etymological principle often have a dim idea of the history of English. Scissors is a monster not only because of its ss but because of sc-: the late Middle English form was sisoures. Unfortunately, some learned people thought that the root of the word was the same as in Latin scindere “to cut” and added an extra letter. Such mangled words are numerous. Yet more important is another consideration. Does anybody believe that the complexity of English spelling makes our students feel at home in Latin or Greek? Once they learn how to spell symbol and cyst, will they be closer to Homer or Thucydides? Thousands of our graduates have not even been able to master the difference between its and it’s, who’s and whose. Let Thucydides and Caesar rest (lie) in peace. Or have the Italians who spell simbolo “symbol” and cisto “cyst” forfeited an important part of ancient culture? And if we are so dedicated to etymology, why should the British spell colour the Old French way (today its couleur!)? Latin color is closer to the source. Anyway, English spelling cannot be used as a springboard to etymology.

I have also been told that it is the aim of spelling to reflect meaning, rather than be phonic. Really? Is it then admissible or even desirable to write choir and pronounce quire? Are we speaking about letters or hieroglyphs? Many countries have reformed their spelling, and the aim of the move has always been to make orthography more “phonic.” True, English spelling is too chaotic to be exploded all at once, but even a few tiny steps in the right direction would be most beneficial. Rest assured: sissors spelled so will cut as well as before (perhaps even better).

Featured Image: The oldest spelling system of which we are aware. Featured Image Credit: “Antiquity Characters Places Of Interest Temple” by fotoerich. CC0 via Pixabay

Recent Comments

  1. Maggie Catambay


    English spelling is evolving bit by bit.. We see “misspellings” all of the time that become accepted as OK after a flurry of worry!

    Dieters look for “lite” concoctions of favorite foods.

    Crossword puzzles make use of alternate spellings to fit the space allotted.

  2. Michael

    The biggest problem (I find) with the etymological spelling argument is its circular reasoning. A word might be spelled a certain way because of etymology but one can’t just look at a word and discover its origin without actually researching the origin of the word. Some words we can know by looking at the spelling but, like you have said, there are many misleading spellings like delight and island.

    I love etymology (I’m reading this blog!), but society in general does not benefit from etymological spelling (with maybe a few exceptions). Even if English were to get a drastic spelling reform overnight, we would still have millions of texts and old dictionaries to know what the current spellings had once been.

    There might be some small benefit for keeping certain morphemes spelled the same (electric and electricity come to mind) but I don’t think having different spellings would hurt too much.

  3. Masha Bell

    U are right to say that most people have little idea of how English spelling ended up so messy.

    Rather than breaking links with the past, spelling reform could frequently restore broken links. For example, undoing the silly substitutions of ‘o’ for ‘u’ (mostly next to v, ww, n and m) in 50 words like ‘month, love, wonder’ not adopted until around 1000 years ago.
    Ditto, the 51 words which we now spell with ‘ea’ instead of just ‘e’, as Chaucer used to ( hed, fether, lern) which was a 15th century perversion.

    Getting rid of the pointless consonant doublings adopted by Samuel Johnson, as in ‘accompany, afflict, alleviate’, would reconnect us with our past and bring us closer to other modern languages too, e.g. Spanish ‘acompanar, afligier, aliviar’.

  4. Constantinos Ragazas


    With “spellcheck technology”, writing is not the issue. But reading is.

    As I am reminded, helping my 5 year old granddaughter learn to read. Thus my suggestion making English more “phonic”. It is the only reform that is sensible.

    For example, once you learn the sound of each Greek letter, you are able to read anything. Even if you do not understand what you are reading.

    As for preserving the etymological roots of words through their spelling, this is a matter of intellectual honesty and integrity. We must honor the truth and the people that lived it.

    A worthy lesson for our students. Don’t you think? Sadly missing in an era of “fake news” and “alternative facts” and “mass manipulation”. Which, I fear, this Spelling Congress risks of becoming.


  5. Jules F Levin

    ‘scissers’ illustrates both aspects of spelling reform. Eliminating useless c’s (science?, scene?) word by word is harmless, but a complete reform should result in *sizzers, not sissers. (Cf misses, pisser, etc.). But for me the real issue are the large number of homophones distinguished by spelling. English as a World Language is mostly printed, not spoken.

    In our neighborhood cats and dogs reign. In fact, the reigning household pets are cats and dogs, but we live in the desert where it never rains. My grandfather made horsegear in the tsar’s army; mostly he made reins. He was a rein-maker, but never a rain-maker. He was able to do this work thanks to the then reigning tsar.

    The praying mantis is definitely a prey animal, but it seems to pray even when it is preying.

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