I recently described my room as being spick and span and I realized I had no idea what that really meant.

It occurred to me that it might stem from a derogatory term (spick), so I thought I'd ask here to make sure there wasn't some racist historical origin. What is its origin?

  • Spick and span means clean like new. Wikipedia has some suggestions on the ethnic implications of spic and span as a modern phrase. – Henry Sep 23 '11 at 7:10

It doesn't come from a derogatory term.

It appears to be a combination of two terms that mean new. Span came from Old Norse and spick came from Dutch.

ORIGIN late 16th cent. (in the sense ‘brand new’): from spick and span new, emphatic extension of dialect span new, from Old Norse spán-nýr, from spánn ‘chip’ + nýr ‘new’; spick influenced by Dutch spiksplinternieuw, literally ‘splinter new.’

New Oxford American Dictionary - Mac Dictionary App

The derogatory term is much more recent.

ORIGIN early 20th cent.: abbreviation of US slang spiggoty, in the same sense, of uncertain origin: perhaps an alteration of speak the in ‘no speak the English.’

New Oxford American Dictionary - Mac Dictionary App


Here’s what ‘Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable’ gives under ‘Spick and Span New’:

Quite and entirely new. A spic is a spike or nail, and a span is a chip. So that a spick and span ship is one in which every nail and chip is new. The more common expression today is spick and span, meaning all neat, clean, bright, and tidy.

protected by tchrist Mar 26 '13 at 11:25

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