Spick and span – the annual spring clean

Spring has fully sprung! With warmer days ahead, you may find yourself inspired to turn over a new leaf and clean house, quite literally. Often, people mark the change in seasons with a traditional spring clean, the act of thoroughly cleaning your home. It’s time to clear the cobwebs of winter and switch over your wardrobe.

The big spring clean got us thinking about the acts of cleansing and decluttering. There are many weird and wonderful ways to talk about it. For example, ever heard of Bristol fashion? We’re not talking about street style: Bristol fashion has nautical roots (see also shipshape), and means clean and neat, sometimes newly painted, scrubbed, and polished. This phrase was first recorded around 1830 and refers to the orderly condition of a ship, back when Bristol was a major trading port in Britain.

Other cleaning-related English phrases include clean as a whistle, meaning completely clean but also sometimes used as an expression of innocence. Spick and span, meaning very clean and tidy, has possible links to the Dutch ‘spiksplinternieuw (‘nail-new’)’, used to describe a newly built ship and also nautical in origin. On the flipside, pigsty (‘this place is a pigsty!’) is a British expression which means you are calling something dirty and untidy … much like a pig pen on a farm. No offence to pigs, which are known to be very clean animals.

Unusual idioms and turns of phrase aside, there are plenty of standalone words you may not have come across before. For example, next time you’re wiping down the kitchen sides, you may call it an abstersion. Or you may reach for a besom, a broom made of twigs tied to a handle, to give your driveway a decent clean.

For most people, cleaning brings a sense of peace and wellbeing, particularly when cleaning out the garage becomes an opportunity to do good. Taking old clothes to a charity shop or donating unloved books to your local library makes spring cleaning a simple way of tackling issues such as fast fashion and mass consumerism. Whether it’s throwing out everything except the items that spark joy in your wardrobe or keeping our beaches and green spaces tidy, the spring clean goes far beyond your own four walls.

Recent environmental additions to Collins Dictionary include zero waste – why indulge in an annual deep clean when you could challenge yourself to produce or purchase nothing that cannot be reused, repurposed or recycled all year round? – and plogging, a recreational activity that combines your morning jog with picking up litter. As people spend time in public spaces, cleaning up becomes even more important, to both preserve the beauty of green spaces and protect wildlife. Speaking of the great outdoors, have you ever noticed that fresh, sweet smell that appears after heavy rain in the summer? That’s petrichor, nature’s perfume. So, there you have it, a stroll through some of the more unusual or lesser-known words and phrases to mark your annual spring clean. Go forth and bust some dust.

By Rachel Quin
Rachel Quin is a freelance marketer and copywriter with a love of language, books and cats.

All opinions expressed on this blog are those of the individual writers, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions or policies of Collins, or its parent company, HarperCollins.

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