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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
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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

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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.

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