Cassidese Glossary – Spic(k) and Span

For some time now, some of my on-line friends have advised me to provide a version of CassidySlangScam without the invective aimed at Cassidy and his supporters. In response to that advice, I am working on providing a glossary of the terms in Cassidy’s ludicrous book How The Irish Invented Slang with a short, simple and business-like explanation of why Cassidy’s version is wrong.

Daniel Cassidy, in his etymological hoax, How The Irish Invented Slang, claimed that the phrase spic(k) and span comes from Irish spiaca’s bán. It doesn’t.

As usual with Cassidy, there is absolutely no evidence that the phrase spiaca’s bán exists. Cassidy found words in a dictionary and put them together to make what he thought would be a suitable phrase. The words which make up the phrase do exist, of course. Spiagaí is a word meaning brilliant or gaudy, and it has an alternative version spiaca which is used in some dialects. Bán means white. So the phrase could conceivably mean ‘brilliant white’, which is not really what spick and span means.

However, there are also very good reasons for regarding spiaca’s bán as impossible, or at least highly improbable. Firstly, while Irish speakers sometimes put ’s or agus between adjectives these days (because of Béarlachas or the influence of English), this is not traditional in the language. A big red book is leabhar mór dearg, not leabhar mór agus dearg. It is unlikely that an Irish speaker centuries ago would have done this.

Secondly, when there are pairs of adjectives like this, it is almost always the case that the one-syllable word comes first. Thus we have tinn tuirseach, dubh dóite, deas néata, beag bídeach. It would really have to be bán spiagaí, which obviously isn’t going to be the origin of spick and span.

As for the genuine origin, the term spick and span has been in the language for hundreds of years. It is found in Sir Thomas North’s translation of Plutarch’s Lives, 1579: ‘They were all in goodly gilt armours, and brave purple cassocks apon them, spicke, and spanne newe.’ Apparently ‘new’ was nearly always added to the phrase in these early references. English dictionaries tell us that the word spick is a variant of spike or nail, and span is an ancient term for a chip of wood (similar to Spon in German Rotspon), so the idea is that everything is new in an item, including the wood and the nails.

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