spick and span

No, the phrase spick and span is not related to the ethnic epithet. It is an adjective meaning perfectly or brand new or a reference to refurbishing or cleaning that restores something to mint condition.

The original form of the adjective was span-new, a form that survived in dialectal speech into the 19th century. The word is from the Old Norse spán-nýr, literally meaning chip new, as in new as a chip just chiseled from a block of wood. From The Lay of Havelok the Dane, c.1300:

Þe cok bigan of him to rewe, and bouthe him cloþes, al spannewe.
(The cook began to pity him, and bought him clothes, all span-new.)

By the late 16th century, spick, for spike or nail, had been added for emphasis, mainly for alliterative rather than logical purposes. This same element appears in the Dutch spikspeldernieuw. From Thomas North’s 1579-80 translation of Plutarch’s Lives:

They were all in goodly gilt armours, and brave purple cassocks apon them, spicke, and spanne newe.

Within a century, the new was being shifted. The adjective spick and span dates to the 17th century and first appears in Samuel Pepys’ Diary of 15 November 1665:

My Lady Batten walking through the dirty lane with new spicke and span white shoes.

And by the 1731 publication of Jonathan Swift’s Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift, the new was being dropped entirely:

His way of writing now is past;...I keep no antiquated stuff; But spick and span I have enough.

Span-new is not the source of spanking new, the adjective spanking, meaning big or large, having an earlier life separate from this phrase. But while not the source, it is likely that span-new did influence the creation and use of the spanking new and brand spanking new.

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition; Carver’s History of English in Its Own Words)

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