Tune into a game show and if the prize is a new vehicle, you might hear the announcer say the contestant will be awarded a “brand-new car!” Chat with a friend and they might tell you they have a “brand-spanking new television.” Turn on the radio and James Brown might inform you that “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag.”
With respect to the Godfather of Soul, these modifiers are largely unnecessary, since new gets the message across—someone is or will soon be in possession of an unused item. So why do we say something is brand-new or, even more bizarrely, brand-spanking new? What does corporal punishment have to do with anything?
According to the word experts at Merriam-Webster, the brand in brand-new doesn’t refer to a manufacturer. In the 16th century, brand meant a piece of burning wood. Something that was brand-new was something that had just come out of the forge or furnace, where many items like pottery or metalwork were made.
“Wow,” someone might say. “Is that a brand-new chastity belt?”
The terms brand-new and fire-new were used interchangeably in this period and can even be found in the work of William Shakespeare, who wrote of “some excellent jests, fire-new from the mint” in Twelfth Night.
Later, bran-new became commonplace to better represent how people pronounce brand-new. (Say it out loud. You’ll probably drop the D so it sounds like brannew.) In 1900’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, L. Frank Baum wrote about the Scarecrow getting “bran-new brains.”
Span-new is an even older term, dating back to the 14th century and referring to the Old Norse word spānn, or chip of wood. For something to be span-new, it would be as fresh as a newly-cut chunk from an axe swing.
Surprisingly, this probably has little to do with brand-spanking new. Spanking was a 17th century English word that meant something remarkable. For something to be brand-spanking new, it had to be not only new, but unique. It has nothing to do with spanking, or giving someone a corrective slap on their buttocks.
Have you got a Big Question you’d like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at [email protected].