Dear Straight Dope: I spent my formative years in Missouri, and one of our expressions for “quick” was “lickety-split.” I still hear it occasionally, even in this modern age. Recently, when I stopped to consider the phrase, it occurred to me that perhaps it wasn’t an expression for kids after all. I’m sure I’m wrong, so where does the expression come from? Paul Medlock, Baltimore, MD
Boy, thanks for planting that visual in my head, Mr. Mind-in-the-Gutter. While I share your conviction that you’re wrong, the origin of this expression isn’t entirely clear.
"Lickety-split," meaning fast or quickly, apparently arose in the 1830s and 1840s. One reference said that the term had been used by the Puritans back in the 1600s but gave no cite. I doubt it — the earliest known appearance of lickety-split in print is 1843. "Lickety click," "lickety cut" and "lickety switch" were other terms from the 1840s meaning the same thing.
We don’t know exactly where the expression came from, par for the course in etymological matters. One conjecture is that it derives from the verb "to lick" (with the tongue), whence "to go at great lick" or "to go at full lick," i.e., meaning to move at great speed. How licking aided in this process is not clear. I personally like the more amusing explanation that the word "lickety" is onomatopoetic, from the ticking of a clock or the clickety-clack of a train. After all, it was the early industrial revolution, and speed and time had new urgency. Steam engines, trains, and even household clocks made their appearance, changing the pace of society. Hence, a vocabulary arose to reflect the new era. Quite a few terms from the 1830s and 1840s, all meaning fast, speedily, quickly, are still in use today:
- Quick as greased lightning (although "quick as lightning" dates to 1763, the grease was added in the 1840s)
- Before you can say "Jack Robinson"
- In a hustle
- In a jiffy
- Like a house afire
- Hell bent (the variation "Hell bent for leather" doesn’t appear until the 1900s.)
- Immediately if not sooner.
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