Yes, that’s correct, according to the OED, anyway. I’d always assumed it was “spic and span”, but it seems I’ve been getting my Hispanic racial slurs mixed up with… well, apparently, the parallels between spikiness and cleanliness.
Anyone know where the phrase comes from? The most informative explanation I’ve found comes from The Phrase Finder. It says:
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. Which one is most associated with the qualities of spick and span? The suggestions most frequently made are that spick is a variant of spike or nail. In the 16th century nails were made of iron and soon tarnished. It is quite plausible that new nails would have become synonymous with cleanliness. We have the phrase as neat as a new pin, which has just that meaning.
Anyway, anyway, this post is mostly an excuse to share an unexpectedly saucy discovery that I made this morning, in the name of research. While Googling both spellings, I came across a magazine called Spick and Span. I assumed, understandably, that this would be a magazine on cleaning, or housekeeping, or somesuch (kudos to me for clicking on it anyway). Wrong! It’s a glamour mag from the 1950s, specialising (from what I can tell while in the office) in cheeky pictures of young ladies with their stockings and suspenders on show. Well I never.
However, flash their knickers as they will, the ladies of Spick and Span don’t quite have the whole subject covered. They have competition from a cleaning brand, Spic and Span. That’s right, no “k”.
But do we care? Personally, I’m going with the leggy ladies. They look as if they know what they’re talking about.