A little dab’ll do you.
Dear Word Detective: I was telling my English penpal that I am reluctant to let my landlord paint my apartment, because the job would be merely “a lick and a promise.” She remarked that the phrase is used in the same way on both sides of the Pond, and we both wondered what it means literally, and where it came from. Can you shed some light? — Judith Baron, NYC.
I think your trepidation is well founded. Beware of clowns bearing paint cans. Before we bought our house, we noticed that much of the interior had been recently painted, which seemed like a good sign. It wasn’t. When, much later, we pulled up the cheesy wall-to-wall carpet the previous owner had installed, we discovered that he had covered the nice wooden floors with a Jackson Pollock splatter-fest of cheap white paint.
“A lick and a promise” means, as the American Heritage Dictionary puts it, “a superficial effort made without care or enthusiasm.” To perform a task with “a lick and a promise” is to do the absolute minimum required, and often far less than that. With “a lick and a promise,” you’re not really tackling the task, only half-heartedly pretending to chase it.
Of course, almost any field of human endeavor has its slackers, from car mechanics who only feign changing your oil to playwrights who try to skate by on momentum, as Mary McCarthy noted in a 1948 review: “The Dublin Gate players … had a slapdash style of acting that suggested an Irish house-maid flailing about with a dust-cloth — they gave their roles a lick and a promise and trusted to the audience’s good-nature to take the will for the deed.”
The metaphor of a careless maid, however unfair it probably is, harkens back to the original meaning of “a lick and a prayer,” which was “a superficial cleaning,” specifically what the Oxford English Dictionary pegs as “a slight and hasty wash,” the “wash” being the process of washing one’s face and hands. Imagine a child, sent to wash up before supper, who skips the soap and only splashes some water on his hands, yet stoutly asserts that he is squeaky clean.
The “lick” in “lick and a promise” is the standard noun, based on the verb “to lick” in the sense of, as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it, “to pass the tongue over (something), e.g., with the object of tasting, moistening the surface, or removing something from it.” The noun “lick” has been used in this sense of “quick and casual cleaning” since the 17th century, quite possibly drawn from the way a cat cleans itself (although cats are known for their hygienic diligence).
“Promise” in the phrase, however, is a bit mysterious. It could mean an implicit promise to do a better job next time, or a promise that no one will notice the shoddiness of the job, or it might be just a reference to the dreamy, inattentive mentality of the slacker.