Q From Steve Cannell: Do you know the correct spelling, meaning and origin of Likidie split. (Pardon my spelling.)
A It’s usually written lickety-split these days, but don’t be too sensitive about misspelling it — though it has been known since the beginning of the nineteenth century, it has only comparatively recently settled down to that form. Other ways of expressing the idea of moving headlong or at full speed have included lickety-click, lickety-brindle, lickety-switch, lickety-smash, and lickety-clickety. The first part has been spelled in all sorts of ways, such as lickitie or lickoty, which is a good clue that in its early days people were unsure where it came from. The earliest form was as fast as lickety, at full speed, from 1817. Though it’s native to the US, it has also been known in other countries.
Where it comes from is open to argument. Some dictionaries prefer to say cautiously “origin unknown” but others consider it combines split with a fanciful elaboration of lick. The latter turned up at about the same date in expressions we still have: at a great lick or at full lick, also meaning to move fast. This might have something to do with an animal persuaded to go fast by means of a “lick” from a whip, a figurative use of the standard sense that’s also the source of lick for giving somebody a beating. Another form around in US dialect in the nineteenth century was lick it, as in “he went as fast as he could lick it” and some writers think that lick it was the source of lickety, though the dates of recording of the various forms suggest otherwise.
Split is just an intensifying word that happens to have formed a satisfying combination, perhaps because splitting implied a violent separation. If things had turned out differently, we might now be saying lickety-click instead, which is just as meaningless. In settling on split, however, Americans provided a springboard for split in the sense of leaving or departing, recorded from the 1950s.