Tribune Print Share Text

Spick-and-span, bobby pin, strong suit, follow suit

Created date

January 23rd, 2015


When we say that something is “spick-and-span,” it means that it’s as clean as new—quite literally. Unlike many of the terms we’ve reviewed, this one is purely foreign-language based. There are no quirky stories, no historical events that we can attribute to it.

In this case, both terms mean “new.” “Spick” comes from the Dutch spiksplinternieuw (a real mouthful), which means “splinter new.” The second part, span, comes from the Norse word spannyr, meaning “chip new.” Ultimately, an industrious linguist combined the two into a single phrase that we still use today.

In the military, every soldier must keep his bunk and footlocker spick-and-span if he expects to pass inspection.

Bobby pin

We’ve all seen and held one. In England, they’re called “kirby grips,” but in the U.S. they are known ubiquitously as “bobby pins.” The origin of the name is pretty obvious, so you’ve probably already figured it out. But just in case, here’s the answer:

Not surprisingly, the pin got its name from the “bob cut,” a hairstyle that was especially popular with women in the 1920s. The pin and the hairdo, however, actually arrived on the scene in 1899. Although you rarely see this style anymore, the pins are still around and go by the same name.

“Some of the craftiest burglars can pick a lock with an implement as basic as a bobby pin.”

Strong suit

Ironically, the term “strong suit” is rather at odds with its usage. Technically, a “strong suit” is, as the name suggests, a person’s talent or strength (similar to the word “forte”). But it’s normally used to highlight a person’s weakness or shortcomings; for instance, “Public speaking is not his strong suit.”

The phrase comes from cards, wherein certain games assign different values to different suits.

“Math was never my strong suit. I excelled in arts and letters.”

Follow suit

Here’s another idiom from the world of cards. In common parlance, we say someone has “followed suit” when he or she does the same thing someone else has done. As you may have already guessed, the phrase refers to one card player playing the same suit as his opponent in a hand of cards.

“After the earthquake, a friend of ours added earthquake insurance to his homeowner’s policy. Thinking this a smart move, my wife and I followed suit.”