Tuesday, March 08, 2005



In class tonight someone brought up how Spic 'N' Span cleaner is an old racist term referring to housework done by Latin American immigrants. I'd never thought about it, and it blew my mind. "I get the 'spic' part, but what does 'span' mean?" I asked stupidly. "SPANISH", she replied. "D'oh!" I remarked back. Why had I never thought of that before?

Then I looked it up on the trusty Internets:


Q: Dear Word Detective: Here's a phrase I've always wondered about: "spic 'n span." In fact, the more I think about it, the stranger it seems. Where did this phrase come from? -- James Harrigan, Miami, FL

A: Well, since the average American is said to watch somewhere between 70 and 7,000 hours of television each and every week, I think it's fair to say that most of us know "Spic 'n Span" as the name of a popular household cleaning product. Thinking about television's effect on our language, I had the unsettling thought that future generations of couch potatoes might well assume that the phrase "spick and span" was just another case of a trademarked product name being adopted into English as a generic noun, much the way "scotch tape" and "baggie" have been.

That would be a shame, because "spick and span" actually has a rather interesting history. The phrase was originally "spick and span new," and while we usually use "spick (or "spic") and span" to mean "spotlessly clean" (as they say in the commercials), the original meaning was "brand new." "Spick and span" dates back to the 16th century and was originally used to describe a brand new ship. The "spick" was a spike or nail, and the "span" came from an Old Norse word, "spannyr," meaning "fresh wood chip." A ship that was "spick and span new" was therefore "new in every nail and piece of wood."

Although both "spick" and "span" had existed in English for hundreds of years, the combination of "spick and span" seems to have been adopted from the Dutch version of "spick and span," "spiksplinternieuw." It's a shame the phrase was translated into English, actually. Wouldn't you like to hear a TV announcer try to sell you "spiksplinternieuw"?

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The brandname Scotch came about while Richard Drew was testing his first masking tape to determine how much adhesive he needed to add. The bodyshop painter became frustrated with the sample masking tape and exclaimed, "Take this tape back to those Scotch bosses of yours and tell them to put more adhesive on it!" The name was soon applied to the entire line of 3M tapes.

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