spank - Americanism?

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Gwan

Senior Member
New Zealand, English
Hi guys,

I was surprised to read in Giles Milton's Paradise Lost : Smyrna 1922 this description of the reaction of British ministers at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 to the Italian Prime Minister's habit of bursting into tears : "... One said he would have spanked his son if he caught him weeping like Orlando."

While it is unclear whether the use of the word 'spank' is the minister's or Milton's, I was surprised to see it in this context, as I've always regarded it as an Americanism. (Milton is also British, for what it's worth.) I looked it up in a couple of dictionaries which say it dates to some time in 18th century and speculate that it is onomatopoeic, but don't go any further into its origins (I don't have access to the OED, alas!)

Anyway, I was wondering if anyone else thought of it as an Americanism or have any further information on its use and origins? I for one was brought up saying 'smack' and am fairly sure 'spank' only found its way into my vocabulary from American TV.

Cheers :)
 
  • Bevj

    Allegra Moderata (Sp/Eng, Cat)
    English (U.K.)
    My parents often threatened me with a good spanking when I misbehaved ;)
    As far as I know it's a word commonly used in BrE.
     

    Majorbloodnock

    Senior Member
    British English
    Spanking is perfectly normal in BE. Without putting it forward as an "official" definition, I look on a smack as one swipe with a hand and a spanking as one bout of punishment involving multiple smacks, usually applied to the buttocks.
     

    Gwan

    Senior Member
    New Zealand, English
    Hmmm, shows what I know! My parents are both Brits and all...
    Majorbloodnock - instead of saying a spanking, in NZ we would probably say 'a hiding', although this may suggest something quite a bit stronger than a few smacks - sadly, NZ tends to be at or near the bottom of pretty much any statistical table to do with child well-being in the developed world, including child abuse rates :(
     

    ewie

    Senior Member
    English English
    I've certainly never thought of it as an Americanism, Gwan. (Hidings are common in this part of the world too.)
     

    Majorbloodnock

    Senior Member
    British English
    Oh, believe me, I had plenty of hidings when I was a child. The terms "spanking" and "hiding" were every bit as common as the applications. I will steal a phrase from David Niven and say I was, at times, a "thoroughly poisonous little child".
     

    Matching Mole

    Senior Member
    England, English
    If it is an Americanism, it was imported to Britain early, as it is in Nathan Bailey's dictionary of 1727. However, the OED does have a hint that it may have been considered an Americanism, as it is in Schele De Vere's Americanisms:The English of the New World of 1871. Mr De Vere was a European (Swedish born) who settled in the US, and not an Englishman. It's possible that he was mistaken about its origin, or that his book was not limited to words originating purely in N. American English. It's possible that spank was more widely used in N. America than in Britain.
     

    JulianStuart

    Senior Member
    English (UK then US)
    Perhaps we have a severity ranking of
    smacking(or slapping)<spanking<beating(or caning)<hiding

    or is it

    smacking<spanking<hiding<beating?

    (I think I might have had them all as a youngster in the UK!)
     

    nzfauna

    Senior Member
    New Zealand, English
    As a NZE speaker, I would consider only the following to be an Americanism - just from observation:

    To spank = colloq. To masturbate
    As in "spanking the monkey", "I caught him spanking it".

    However, to spank (either to smack or to masturbate) is not very common in NZE.
     

    JulianStuart

    Senior Member
    English (UK then US)
    There are other, competing explanations of the origin of the phrase. From this one:
    Moving on to other sources, we find that the Oxford English Dictionary lists several derivatives of span-nyr, such as "span-new," "spanker-new," and "spank span-new." Then again, the OED also lists "spanking," possibly derived from the Danish spanke, "to strut," which means big, fine, vigorous, etc. William and Mary Morris, authors of the Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins, claim "spanking" comes from a Scandinavian sailor's term used to describe a fresh, lively breeze. One can see how this might reasonably be coupled to the concept of newness in "spanking new."
    The definitive explanation will be about as definitive as the one for "whole nine yards" is. Which is to say, not very. :D
     
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