A Lick and a Promise

Welcome to the weekly series “Friday’s Phrase”. A whimsical and informative look at the idioms, phrases, proverbs and colloquialisms we commonly use, what they mean, and where they came from.


This week’s phrase:           a lick and a promise


During a recent visit, my sister used this idiom in our conversation. I had never heard it used before, although we both grew up in the same house and geographical area. My guttural mind immediately latched onto a more sexual connotation of the phrase and I lamented a feigned absence of oral sex by retorting, “Welcome to my world. Nothing but licks and promises.” We both had a good laugh. But it piqued my interest and kick-started this series, so allow me to pay homage.


Current accepted meaning:

  1. The act of cleaning something hurriedly and carelessly, with the promise of returning to complete it thoroughly in the future. Often used with the verb “give,” as in “give (something) a lick and promise.


“Just give those shelves a lick and a promise because Grandma will be here any minute!”


  1. The act of doing something hurriedly and carelessly in order to get it done quickly and perhaps before a certain deadline.


“I told the interns to just give that mailing a lick and a promise because we were supposed to get it out weeks ago.”


Historical Recorded Use:

The OED (Oxford English Dictionary, get used to that acronym as it is a treasure of knowledge on etymology) states that the earliest recorded use of “a lick and a promise” is from Walter White’s travel book, All Round the Wrekin (1860): “We only gives the cheap ones a lick and a promise.” (The Wrekin is a hill in Shropshire, England.) But we can find an earlier record of it in print in the English newspaper The Era, in March of 1848: “…polish here, brush there, slop at one place, give a lick and a promise at another…”. And an even earlier record in the December 1811 issue of The Critical Review, a journal founded by Tobias Smollett:

“The Prince Regent comes in for a blessing, too, but as one of the Serio-Comico-Clerico’s nurses, who are so fond of over-feeding little babies, would say, it is but a lick and a promise.”



The “and a promise” portion of this phrase requires no deep research. It holds the same literal meaning today, as it always has. The speaker is giving a verbal commitment to do something in the future. There are no documents to bind, details given, or forfeitures to bear. The promise’s merit rests solely on the personal integrity of the speaker’s word. Only their reputation is at stake. They are also accepting that what is promised requires no recompense or restitution for its completion.

“Lick”, on the other hand, is a different story. The “lick” in this expression was originally used by itself, to mean “a dab of paint”, “a hasty tidying up,” or “a casual amount of work,” the OED says. Why is a cursory slap of paint or a casual attempt at a job called a “lick”? This could be due to a connection with another meaning of the word, which the OED defines as “a small quantity, so much as may be had by licking.” This usage dates to the 17th century and is often used in negative constructions: “he ain’t worked a lick” … “couldn’t cook a lick” … “didn’t have a lick of sense” … “couldn’t read a lick,” and so on.



This is not the most intriguing of phrases or the most illusive of meanings. But it was new to me. After asking several people if they had ever heard the phrase, I only found one who had. Hopefully, future entries in this series will be more enlightening and entertaining in revealing some anecdotal and/or humorous instances of where and how the idioms we use came to be. But, for me, this just seemed a logical place to start. This colloquialism is now a part of my vocabularied repertoire, and I have already had opportunity to use it. When asked if I would be cleaning my motorcycle before heading out on a group ride today, I answered, “I’ll give it a lick and a promise”. The raised eyebrow and stupefied look on the inquirer’s face led me to think they saw a mental picture of me actually “licking” my bike to clean it. I know there must be something wrong with me, because that’s the stuff that makes me laugh.

Bonus Phrase: (provided at no extra charge)

“A lick and a prayer”, whom some tout as pre-dating and being the origins of our phrase, has no verifiable first use. Although, I like it too, if defined literally. I like the lack of commitment to return and complete the task. It is more of a do a half-ass job and ‘pray’ no one notices thing. That works too.

3 Responses to “A Lick and a Promise”
  1. I look forward to hearing future stories about places where it was appropriate for you to use this newly found (to you) idiom and the reactions it will bring!

  2. Marjorie says:

    I just gave my bathroom cleaning “a lick and a prayer”. I am 85 years old, and have heard my mother use it over the years. I wish i had asked where she learned it. I use it time and again. As if it was something everyone said without wondering where it came from. It just meant a fast cleaning. It brought to mind a mother cleaning a childs face with a “real” lick!

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