Wednesday, August 13, 2008

First, Be Sure It Was a Mistake

Check out this, at the errors blog for Reuters,

The original story read:
Hygiene hypothesis’ may be tied to bowel disease

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Children who grow up in a spick-and-span home may have a higher risk of developing inflammatory bowel disease, a study suggests.

A reader sent a "gotcha!" e-mail, and said:

I believe it should be spelled S-P-I-C . Adding the K makes it a pejorative.

The product is named “Spic and Span”.



And--here is what REALLY SET ME OFF!!-- the Reuters editor responded:
We corrected: GBU Editor

First, first, first--the sentence is NOT referring to the PRODUCT.

The original phrase, the idiom of long usage, is "spick-and-span." It's short for "spick-and-span new," in which the "spick" from from the obscure English "spick" meaning spike, and "span-new" meant "brand-new." And the phrase has evolved from meaning "brand, spanking new," through "in phenomenally great condition," to "spotlessly clean."

In fact, when the company that created that cleaning product wanted a name, they DELIBERATELY misspelled the idiomatic phrase, in order to *differentiate* it, to make their brand name trademark-able. This is a very common trademark strategy (witness Lite beer, Zip-Loc bags).

(side note: My dictionary gives "spic-and-span" as an alternate, but I wonder how old that is, and whether its rise was influenced by the arrival of the brand name.)

And, the pejorative IS "spic"--short for Hispanic.  (**well, maybe that's not where it came from; like a doofus I wrote what I had always assumed. See the comments for Fritinancy's research on possible origin of the pejorative term)

OK, OK, the reader is unfamiliar with the idiom, and overly familiar with the product, and completely un-understanding of trademarks, and products versus adjectives.

But why oh why did the GBU editor *correct* the mistake????

Just because someone took the effort to write and tell you you're wrong, doesn't mean they are right.

(as Terry Pratchett's character Tiffany Aching muses in Wintersmith, "just because someone is old and has no teeth doesn't mean they're wise.")

I still remember the snotty letter I got at McCall's informing me that the *proper* term is "chaise lounge."

And the letter that took issue with the headline "Eat Safe" (to which I responded w/ a letter introducing her to the concept of the "flat adverb," and the dictionary listing of "safe" *as* an adverb, as well as sharing w/ her our worries that "Eat Safely" implied we were afraid you'd stab yourself w/ the fork).

What have you been accused of getting wrong--when in fact you were right?


Fritinancy said...

I'm still mulling over your question, but in the meantime wanted to comment on "spick" (which Webster's 3rd prefers as "spik" and other sources prefer as "spic"). My sources say the derivation is "no spick English," which is how I remember it, too. See and also

By the way, prefers "spic-and-span"! "Spic" apparently derives from an old meaning of spick = "nail." And span = "new." But I think they're wrong. See this source:

Fritinancy said...

Oops--that sentence about the derivation of "spick" and "span" was meant to come at the end of the last comment, after the URL. "They're wrong" applied to the etymonline entry for "spic-and-span."

TootsNYC said...

And another source supporting "no speak English"

And more on spick-and-span, as well.

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