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The phrase a "lick of" something means a small quantity of something.

What I want to know is where does this phrase come from?

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closed as general reference by MετάEd, J.R., Mahnax, kiamlaluno, StoneyB Sep 16 '12 at 16:59

This question is too basic; it can be definitively and permanently answered by a single link to a standard internet reference source designed specifically to find that type of information.If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

-1 Please add your own attempts to research and anything you found out. Close General Reference. – MετάEd Sep 4 '12 at 2:14
up vote 6 down vote accepted

It comes from the longer phrase a lick and a promise. From the OED:

b. colloq. A slight and hasty wash (usually a lick and a promise). Also, a dab of paint, etc.; a hasty tidying up, a casual amount of work.

  • C. 1648 in Maidment Pasquils (1868) 154 ― We’ll mark them with a lick of tarre.
  • A. 1771 Gray Candidate 2 ― When sly Jemmy Twitcher had smugg’d up his face With a lick of court white-wash, and pious grimace.
  • 1855 Robinson Whitby Gloss., ― A Lick and a Slake.
  • 1860 W. White All round the Wrekin xx. 207 ― We only gives the cheap ones a lick and a promise.
  • 1899 E. F. Heddle Marget at Manse 43 ― That lassie gi’es a lick and a promise when I tell her to sweep!
  • 1922 A. Bennett Lilian i. vi. 57 ― The dirty kitchenmaid was giving the stone floor of the porch a lick and a promise.
  • 1934 L. A. G. Strong Corporal Tune iii. ii. 230 ― The room, instead of its usual vigorous cleaning, got what Nelly would have called a lick and a promise.
  • 1942 C. Morley Thorofare xl. 355 ― You ought to be writing the Adventures of a Crustacean. You’ve only done a lick and a promise. There’s six more inches to fill.
  • 1948 M. McCarthy in Partisan Rev. May-June 325 ― The Dublin Gate players··had a slapdash style of acting that suggested an Irish house‐maid flailing about with a dust-cloth-they gave their roles a lick and a promise and trusted to the audience’s good-nature to take the will for the deed.
  • 1967 V. Lincoln Private Disgrace (1968) xi. 91 ― She had only a basin of water and a rag with which to give the insides of the windows a lick and a promise.
  • 1969 D. Clark Death after Evensong vi. 142 ― A pale sun gave Rooksby a lick and a promise of better things to come.
  • 1972 J. Burmeister Running Scared iii. 51 ― The isolation ward··was given a lick and a promise once a month by an unsupervised maid.
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To me, the archetypal "lick" is a lick of paint. Which was definitely around in 1827...

A lick of paint would improve this.

Against lick, OED gives colloq. A slight and hasty wash (usually a lick and a promise). Also, a dab of paint, etc.; a hasty tidying up, a casual amount of work.

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