lick and a promise - the hasty performance of a task, or something not done properly, also (originally) a hasty wash - the expression is probably from the first half of the 20th century, possibly around 1910-20's, and originally meant a quick or superficial wash (usually of a child's face by the child). It was certainly well in use by the 1930's for the original literal meaning. The expression couldn't have originated a lot earlier as nobody washed much before then anyway. The full expression was along the lines of 'a lick and a promise of a better wash to come'. 'Lick' would no doubt have been an obvious element in the 'lick and promise' expression as it had been a strong metaphorical word since 15th century. It crops up in other expressions (eg 'lick your wounds', and 'lick into shape', the latter made popular from Shakespeare's Richard III, from the common idea then of new-born animals being literally licked into shape by their mothers.) An alternative interpretation (ack J Martin), apparently used in Ireland, has a different meaning: to give (to a child) a whack or beating, with a promise of more to follow, given due cause. This alternative use of the expression is likely to be a corruption of the original meaning.
Did your mother ever get out her handkerchief and spit on it in order to scrub some mess off your face?
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