May 10, 2011
Now, this surprised me: In Singapore, as in London, there is an area called Lavender. Its north-east boundary is Lavender Street. Honest: check it out. In the 1800s, Lavender district was filled with vegetable farms owned by Chinese immigrants. Later, these immigrants began cultivating sugarcane and the area grew to consist of a mix of vegetable farms and sugarcane plantations. The name is surely an ironic usage: the area’s neighbours were constantly complaining about the district because of the stench ponging out from its fertilizers, its cow dung and its nearby processing plants. Anyone who has ever lived near one knows that a sugar factory’s sweetness soon sickens. Snidely and in jest, they called the place “Lavender”.
I’m mentioning all this because I am confident you will agree with this proposition: 21st century a Singapore has turned itself into one of the most ‘spick and span’ cities in the world.
But what does ‘spick and span’ mean?
Part of the phrase seems to appear in an Old English Romance called The Lay of Havelock the Dane composed by an unknown author sometime between 1295 and 1310: Þe cook bigan of him to rewe, and bought him cloþes, al spannewe.
Even more strangely, the poem’s characters appear on the Town Seal of Grimsby dating from the early 13th century. Back to the point: Thomas North’s translation of “Plutarch’s Lives” in 1579 (the source of much of Shakespeare’s inspiration), a description of knightly attire goes: They were all in goodly gilt armours, and brave purple cassocks apon them, spicke, and spanne newe.”
86 years later, the phrase had become both precise enough and commonplace enough for Samuel Pepys to write in his diary on the night of 15 November: My Lady Batten walk[ed] through the dirty lane with new spicke and span white shoes.
As you have read elsewhere in these blogs, I believe that ‘spicke’ often refers to a ‘spike’ of lavender; and I think it does so here. We know, for example, that the Pepys couple encouraged their London maids to clean their house’s wainscot with Lavender beeswax. Lady Batten’s shoes are sure to have been of leather; and in both Queen Elizabeth’s and Pepys’s times, Lavender oil was often used (as linseed oil might be now) for preservation and suppleness, and to give a surface quality to leather such as made cleaning it an easier task. ‘Span’ fits with this idea if it is used as a measure of quantity – say, a hand-span’s worth of oil to polish the leather.
So think about this, next time you praise someone for their ‘spick and span’ turnout, or the appearance of their house – or anything. Think of Lavender oil.
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