"A lick and a promise” refers to a cursory washing or cleaning ("lick"), with a “promise” to do a more thorough job later. The phrase “a lick and a promise” is cited in print from at least 1811 and appears to originate from England, where the phrase is still used.
Television news reporter Dan Rather has referred to “a lick and a promise” as a Texas phrase.
The Phrase Finder
A lick and a promise
A cursory effort, for instance at painting or tidying up. It alludes to the perfunctory washing performed by children.
This is colloquial English and is first recorded in print in Walter White’s All round the Wrekin, 1860:
“We only gives the cheap ones a lick and a promise.”
The Free Dictionary
Give something a lick and a promise
1. to clean something quickly and not carefully. I put on my new suit, gave my shoes a lick and a promise, and left the house.
2. to do a job or piece of work quickly and not carefully. We didn’t have time to do much clearing up in the yard - just gave the grass a lick and a promise.
(Oxford English Dictionary)
colloq. A slight and hasty wash (usually a lick and a promise). Also, a dab of paint, etc.; a hasty tidying up, a casual amount of work.
c1648 in Maidment Pasquils (1868) 154 We’ll mark them with a lick of tarre.
a1771 GRAY Candidate 2 When sly Jemmy Twitcher had smugg’d up his face With a lick of court white-wash, and pious grimace.
1855 ROBINSON Whitby Gloss., A Lick and a Slake.
1860 W. WHITE All round the Wrekin xx. 207 We only gives the cheap ones a lick and a promise.
1899 E. F. HEDDLE Marget at Manse 43 That lassie gi’es a lick and a promise when I tell her to sweep!
1922 A. BENNETT Lilian I. vi. 57 The dirty kitchenmaid was giving the stone floor of the porch a lick and a promise.
1934 L. A. G. STRONG Corporal Tune III. ii. 230 The room, instead of its usual vigorous cleaning, got what Nelly would have called a lick and a promise.
1942 C. MORLEY Thorofare xl. 355 You ought to be writing the Adventures of a Crustacean. You’ve only done a lick and a promise. There’s six more inches to fill.
December 1811, The Critical Review (Third Series), “Thinks-I-to-Myself: A Serio-Ludicro, Tragio-Comico Tale,” pg. 391:
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.
A serio-ludicro, tragico-comic tale
By Edward Nares
London: Sherwood, Neely, and Jones
The Critical Reviewers talk of “a lick and a promise.” I know not what they mean; I do declare, I am unacquainted with the meaning of such terms. They may be vulgar, or they may be refined; I only say, they are totally new to me.
Modern Cookery, In All Its Branches
By Eliza Acton
Philadelphia, PA: Blanchard and Lea
You ought not to do any thing by halves. What you do, do well. If you clean, clean thoroughly, having nothing to do with the “slut’s wipe,” and the “lick and a promise.”
A Glossary of Yorkshire Words and Phrases
By an Inhabitant (Francis Kildale Robinson—ed.)
London: John Russell Smith
A SLAKE, a mere wipe, not a thorough cleansing. “A lick and a slake,” or “A lick and a promise,” as a slut gets over certain of her household duties.
17 December 1858, Church of England Magazine, pg. 397:
He is not content with giving what the sailors term a ‘lick and a promise’ to his face, &c., but he, as they term it, sluices himself all over with cold water every morning.
A Dictionary of Slang, Jargon & Cant
Compiled and edited by Albert Barrere and Charles G. Leland
Vol. II L-Z
The Ballantyne Press
New York (NY) Times
For Rather, Technology Has Drawbacks, Too
By LAWRIE MIFFLIN
Published: March 11, 1996
On March 9, 1981, the night Dan Rather replaced Walter Cronkite as the anchor of “CBS Evening News,” the camera showed Mr. Rather from the waist up, with nothing behind him but a blank dove-gray backdrop.
“On our best days we use our knowledge of the world and our technology to give coverage that is deeper and better,” he continued. “Other times, to use a Texas phrase, we hit it a lick and a promise, and get out.”
Texas (Lone Star State Dictionary) • (1) Comments • Saturday, January 31, 2009 • Permalink
Great read, I heard this phrase used today and had no idea what it meant. I now know! Thanks