A Lick and a Promise – Idiom, Meaning & Origin

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Candace Osmond

Candace Osmond studied Advanced Writing & Editing Essentials at MHC. She’s been an International and USA TODAY Bestselling Author for over a decade. And she’s worked as an Editor for several mid-sized publications. Candace has a keen eye for content editing and a high degree of expertise in Fiction.

Some idioms in the English language are no-brainers. But then there are ones that make you scratch your head at the meaning. One that pops into my mind is “a lick and a promise.” I mean, what the heck is that supposed to even mean? Don’t worry, after reading this quick breakdown, you won’t ever ask that question again.

A Lick and a Promise Idiom Meaning Explained

A Lick and a Promise Idiom Meaning Origin 1

The oddball phrase “a lick and a promise” is meant to describe someone doing a quick and superficial job with the full intention of coming back to it at a later date to finish it better or more thoroughly.

Usually, it implies that someone has performed a task with haste without giving it the full attention it deserves but does plan to return to it.

A Lick and a Promise Origin

The origin of the colloquial expression “a lick and a promise” takes us back to the early 1800s. It was mostly used in the context of house cleaning, when maids or servants would skim over a bigger task to get the smaller tasks done first, with the intention of coming back and dedicating their full attention to it.

One of the first published sources was back in 1848 in an English newspaper called The Era, where it said, “…polish here, brush there, slop at one place, give a lick and a promise at another….”

Synonyms for a Lick and a Promise

  • Quick fix
  • A cursory effort
  • A hasty job
  • Quick job
  • A superficial attempt

A Lick and a Promise Examples in a Sentence

A Lick and a Promise Idiom Meaning Origin
  • Daisy only had time for a lick and a promise when it came to cleaning the house before her dinner guests arrived for the evening.
  • The mechanic gave my car a lick and a promise so I could get back on the road but told me it would need a more thorough inspection later.
  • With the strict deadline looming, Dan could only manage a lick and a promise on the book project, planning to refine it during the first round of edits.
  • The famous chef prepared a simple meal with a lick and a promise, promising to cook a more elaborate dinner for the judges next time.
  • I can tell you put together this report with a lick and a promise, so I hope you plan to polish it when you get a chance.
  • Every year, the city fills the potholes with a lick and a promise, but that promise never comes through.

English Is Weird

Can we call that a wrap? There’s not very much I can say about this strange idiom. However, you can use “a lick and a promise” any time you want to convey the sense that something was done too quickly and without care, but there are plans to come back to it. It’s like saying, “It’s good enough for now until I get time to do it right.” Let me know if you have a question about idioms!

Enjoyed reading about this idiom? Check out some others we covered: