Where Did The Phrase “Spick And Span” Come From?

Batman and Robin. Peanut butter and jelly. Bitcoin and not having a clue what bitcoin is.

There are some things that just go together. You would be hard pressed to find one without the other.

One example is the phrase “spick and span.” The term whose words on their own mean have nothing to do with being new, but together mean “fresh” or “clean.” Where did the phrase come come? Why do we not really use the words on their own?

Let’s find out in today’s edition of Wonder Why Wednesday…

Where Did The Phrase “Spick And Span” Come From?

Fun fact: the term was originally spick and span-new. A use from 1579 comes from Sir Thomas North’s translation of Plutarch’s Lives of the noble Grecians and Romanes, 1579:

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

The phrase dropped “new” in 1665 when it was first found in Samuel Pepys’ Diary:

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

It is unclear exactly how this phrase came about, but as Phrases.org.uk puts it, “The alliteration in the phrase suggests the possibility that that one of the two words alluded to cleanliness and freshness and that the other just followed along.”

So which word most closely resembled something new or fresh, you ask? Probably spick.

The word spick was sometimes used in place of spike or nail. In the 1500s a new nail may have been associated with cleanliness because it was cleaned as soon as it was made. There is a phrase “as neat as a new pin” which alludes to this idea.

So, basically that’s the best guess out there. The phrase probably started just because it featured alliteration and was fun to say. It was a stretch from the original meaning, but it stuck nonetheless. Kinda like what we do today with emojis and memes. #notagreatcomparison

This Is What Life Feels Like Sometimes

I did a recent workout in the bleachers at a local high school football field. The workout instructor told us to jump up five stairs then stop and do four pushups. Then we had to run down three stairs and do four pushups.

Following that we had to jump up five more stairs and continue the process. Five stairs up, three stairs down. Again and again until we reached the top. There was probably 40 stairs, which meant 20 rounds of the 5-4-3-4 process.

I can run up 40 stairs in a few seconds. But this drill took forever.

Every time it seemed like I was making progress I had to turn around and then go back down. It felt like I would never make it to the top.

I wanted to stop in the beginning. I wanted to stop in the middle. Near the top, I wanted to just say I was close enough and call in the end.

5 stairs up, 3 stairs down. Again and again.

I could see the end, but it didn’t seem like I was ever going to get there. No matter how high I jumped or how fast I did pushups, I couldn’t get a pass to go up a level. And don’t think I didn’t consider jumping up 6 stairs and only running down 2 so that I could get to the end faster.


Eventually I made it to the top. I was sweaty and exhausted. I don’t know how long it look, but it didn’t go as fast as I would have liked. And it was definitely way harder than I would have liked.

But I made it.

My description of the workout may seem a lot like how life feels sometimes when we are chasing our goals. We can see the end and we want to get their fast. Every time we make a little progress something knocks us back down a few steps.

It feels like we will never make it to the top. We want to cheat, sneak and do anything we can to skip a level. We want to stop in the beginning. And in the middle. And, near the top, we just want to say it is close enough and call in the end.

When we make it to the top, we may not be sweaty, but we’ll probably be tired and it will certainly be way harder than we would have liked.

But we can make it.

Could This One Change Help You Find Meaning in Life?

In the past I have written about Victor Frankl and the many pains he had to endure. He experienced extreme suffering during the Holocaust, losing many people he loved.

Despite all that, he still was able to find meaning in life.

Frankl titled his book, Man’s Search For Meaning, because he recognized that we are all looking for meaning in our own lives. Each of us want to have something that gives us value or makes us feel important.

It is one thing to ask the question: Where can we find meaning?

Meaning can be found in our work, our family or, like Frankl, in efforts to help others find their meaning.

It is another thing to ask: Where can I find my unique meaning?

I don’t know about you, but finding my unique meaning always seems like a very difficult task. I keep waiting to find a cheat sheet or cliff notes version of my life that reveals my specific purpose.

I am still waiting…

If you are like me, maybe we are just looking at it the wrong way.

I recently read this quote by former Security of Education, John Gardner.

“Meaning is not something you stumble across, like an answer to a riddle or a prize in a treasure hunt. Meaning is something you build into your life.”

Every time I think about my search for meaning, feel I am playing the role of a detective. I picture myself as a super sleuth as I try to put together clues from my life to solve an important puzzle.

The only problem is that I am not Sherlock Holmes. I have no secret agent training and the only thing that makes me qualified to be a detective is that I own a magnifying glass. Other than that, I lack all appropriate detective equipment and preparation.

So in my most important case ever, the case of the missing purpose, I am lost.

That is discouraging.

As Gardner says, instead of looking at life like a detective, maybe I should be looking at meaning through the lens of a builder.

Instead of searching for missing pieces, I should be looking at blueprints. Rather than collecting clues, I should be assembling material. The building blocks of my unique meaning can be made up of the experiences I’ve had, the skills I possess and many of the other aspects of my life that make me, me.

While it is true that I am no engineer, and the only tool I really know how to use is a level, I feel that it is much easier to become Bob Vila than it is to become Sherlock Holmes.

Next time you are like me and feel you are hopeless in your quest for meaning, try and change your proverbial profession from detective to builder. I like our chances of building meaning much better than doing an investigation for meaning.

One Way To Overcome An Obstacle

Think of a time when you created a goal, only to fall short of achieving it.

Maybe you tried to lose 20 pounds in 6 months, but you came up 5 pounds short. Maybe you set the goal to be asleep by 11pm every night, only to find yourself frequently awake at midnight.

Just because you create a goal, that doesn’t mean you are going to achieve it.

Why not?

The simple answer is that obstacles get in the way. An office birthday leads to cake which leads to cheating on our diet. Our sister in the West Coast time zone calls and we talk late into our East Coast night.

We don’t mean to hit these goal busting walls. Our intentions are good, the problem is that we fail to act on those intentions.

But here is something that can help. Psychologist Peter Gollwitzer has coined the phrase “Implementation Intentions” as a self-regulatory strategy in the form of an if-then plan.

If I come across obstacle A, then I will respond with B.

This gives us a plan of attack to be better prepared to face inevitable obstacles.

Gollwitzer tested this theory by giving participants a task that tested their concentration. Half of participants wrote the goal, “I will try to find as many correct solutions as possible!” The other half wrote “If I get distracted, then I will concentrate on test even more!”

The results showed an increased interruption time for the participants who simply created the goal of finding as many correct solutions as possible. They spent more time stumped, aka they didn’t achieve their goal.

The participants who used an implementation intention–if I get distracted, then I will concentrate on test even more–had lower disruption times. They still got distracted, but they were prepared for what to do next.

By creating an if-then plan, the participants were able to increase their results.

Turns out that our perception, attention and memory are all heightened when we form a concrete plan of how to deal with an obstacle. This makes us much better at handling the situation because the task is performed more automatically and efficiently.

By spending a few moments preparing ourselves for the obstacle, our brain can shift into autopilot and we aren’t constrained by conscious effort. We remove some hesitation and deliberation and the right decision is much easier to make in such a critical situation.

For instance, if my sister calls at 10:45pm, I will respond by calling her back the next day. If cake is brought into the office, I will sprint out of the room after signing Happy Birthday to avoid temptation.

By picturing the possible obstacles, and figuring out how to respond, we set ourselves up for success.

If I come across obstacle A, then I will respond with B. Seems too simple but it just might work.