A little dab’ll do you.
Dear Word Detective: Recently, a foreign forum user asked what “lick” is supposed to mean. The phrase he was referring to was “Worth a lick.” I was a bit perplexed that your cats hadn’t asked. — Richard Clow.
Well, perhaps they have. I stopped listening to them after they suggested I buy stock in Facebook. It was one of those rare times I’m glad I don’t have any money, because if I had had any money and had spent it on that, I wouldn’t have any money anymore. People say that Facebook can’t possibly collapse because they have, like, six billion users or something, but those people need to (a) Google “tulipomania,” (b) read Shelley’s poem “Ozymandias” a few times, and (c) check out the recent business history of Myspace. Sometime soon the only people left on Facebook will be (a) parents spying on their own kids, and (b) those sad little strip-mall mattress stores that have “Like Us on Facebook!” signs flashing all night long in darkened and silent small towns in Ohio.
“Lick” as a noun first appeared around 1600, drawn directly from the verb “to lick,” which came from the Old English “liccian,” based on Germanic roots that were probably imitative, i.e., the word imitated the action or sound of licking. As a verb, “lick” means “to pass the tongue over something; to lap at” to taste the thing, moisten it, etc. “To lick” in the sense of “to defeat” (“OSU licked Michigan again in the dreams of many fans”) was originally “lick up,” to vanquish, probably from the Coverdale Bible of 1535, which used the image of an ox “licking up” (eating) all the grass in a field.
In its most basic sense, “lick” as a noun means “an act of licking,” but from early on it was also used to mean “a small amount,” such as the amount of food as could be had in a single lick. Thus “a lick” could simply mean “a small amount of food” (“Everybody brought ‘sunthin’—some a lick of meal, some a punkin’ [etc.],” 1853). But a “lick” of something could be a small amount of anything, even such intangibles as “work” (“But all day yesterday an’ to-day he hain’t worked a lick,” 1902), intelligence (“I was fool enough to argue with him a bit, trying to see if he didn’t have a lick of sense,” 1919), or simply aptitude or ability in anything (“His grandfather was a preacher and he couldn’t read a lick,” 1971). It’s this “small amount” sense of “lick” found in the phrase “worth a lick” in your question.
“Lick” can also be used to mean “a brief or superficial effort,” as in the phrase “a lick and a promise” meaning “a quick washing or cleaning,” the “promise” being an implicit one to do a more thorough job at some later time (“The room, instead of its usual vigorous cleaning, got what Nelly would have called a lick and a promise,” 1934).
The “small” and “brief” connotations of “lick” are are also found in the less cheerful use of “lick” to mean “a quick, smart blow,” especially from a cane, whip or stick, which dates back to the 17th century (“[He] gave the Fellow half a dozen good Licks with his Cane,” 1680). We still use this sense in phrases such as “to take one’s licks,” meaning to accept one’s expected punishment or criticism (“He and his … Socialist Movement have been taking their licks,” 1987).
On the positive side, however, since the 1930s “lick” has been musicians’ slang for a short, dynamic musical phrase or catchy solo inserted into a musical performance (“The blues riff is even better, full of Charlie Parker-like bebop licks,” 1970).