Appalachian Dialect Sayings from Appalachia

A Lick and a Promise

view from ridge

lick and a promise noun phrase Esp with reference to a household chore: a hasty job, one done in a slipshod or superficial manner.
1943 Justus Bluebird 18 They’ve had no more than a lick-and-a promise with a broom for quite a spell. 1966 DARE give something a lick and a promise = to do a job without proper time or care (Spruce Pine NC). 1976 Garber Mountain-ese 53 You didn’t half sweep the floor; you gave it a lick and a promise. 1989 Brewer Hit’s Gettin’ “[A] lick and a promise” is what we do when we fix something temporarily. 1995 Montgomery Coll. = a half-hearted effort (Cardwell).

Dictionary of Smoky Mountain English

The other day someone asked me if I’d ever heard of the saying a lick and a promise.

I’ve heard the saying my whole life, but I don’t like it when I have to use it to describe a task I’ve just completed.

The sayings: “Begun is half done” and “If you’re going to do something do it right or don’t do it at all” both compete against “A lick and a Promise” in my mind 🙂

Are you familiar with the saying a lick and a promise?


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  • Reply
    Jennifer Stomberger
    July 8, 2021 at 11:26 pm

    I just saw this:
    ‘Figured you had already seen it, but ‘hated to not share.

  • Reply
    Betty Jo Eason Benedict
    July 7, 2021 at 7:41 am

    Yep, quite often heard from my Mom too! Other times she might have just had time to “Hit the High Spots” 🙂

  • Reply
    John Burton
    July 7, 2021 at 1:40 am

    Heard phrase “lick and a promise” many times from my grandmother in Eastern Kentucky back in the 50’s! I would visit my grandparents on their farm. I knew not to give anything “a lick and a promise!”

  • Reply
    July 6, 2021 at 3:03 pm

    I heard it from my mother many times. Erma Bombeck said about house cleaning to keep your vacuum cleaner in the middle of the living room and if someone dropped by to say, ” I was just getting ready to clean this place.” She also said you need to dust the vacuum cleaner occasionally or your story wouldn’t hold up.

  • Reply
    Garland Davis
    July 6, 2021 at 2:42 pm

    After thirteen years riding the Parkinson’s dragon, going through the Chemo and Radiation Therapies for Lymphoma within the last few months, and then falling and fracturing my kneecap in April, “If you’re going to do something do it right or don’t do it at all,” has become my mantra. If it involves physical effort, I just don’t do it.

    On a lighter note, I have been binging on the Pressley Girls’ videos on YouTube. Especially like the creek. It reminds me of many pleasant days growing up in NC…

  • Reply
    Ron Bass
    July 6, 2021 at 1:51 pm

    Heard lick and promise all my life. It was normally followed by “it’ll do til we got more time”.

  • Reply
    July 6, 2021 at 1:16 pm

    I’ve heard and used it all my life.

  • Reply
    July 6, 2021 at 12:10 pm


    Here in our area of southeast Texas it has been a common expression, especially among the older folks. With that being said, I don’t consider myself to be elderly, but I still use it quite often with the grand kids or whoever in our family that does a slip-shod job. My elders also taught me that a job worth doing was worth doing right. So, when they informed me I had given a job a lick and a promise I knew my efforts were far below their expectations and I expected their next statement to be, “I’d better straighten up and fly right or I’d be in trouble.” That meant the job had better be done again and done right.

  • Reply
    Gene Smith
    July 6, 2021 at 11:30 am

    I’ll bet others also learned this advice: “When a task is first begun, never leave it ’til it’s done; be it great or be it small, do it well or not at all.”

  • Reply
    Ed Ammons
    July 6, 2021 at 11:28 am

    Many people don’t understand what a “lick’ is. It is one swipe of the tongue. It is a whipping! But wait, there’s more! It is also one swipe of a broom, one swing of an axe, one strike of a hoe, in a fight it’s one blow and job do hurriedly.
    A “promise” is pretty much universal. It means you assure someone else that you will do what you say you will do. In the case of “a lick and promise” you start a job then leave the promisee with the assurance that you will return to finish it. “I’ll do what I can before dark but I’ll be back tomorrow and finish it.” If you come back the next day and finish the job then the phrase doesn’t apply.
    Kids and shady characters don’t often return to complete the job correctly especially if they are paid up front. They do the lick and forget the promise!

  • Reply
    Gene Smith
    July 6, 2021 at 11:22 am

    I’ve heard that one all my life, but never spoken by a man; only by female family members and neighbors. Don’t know why a man wouldn’t use the expression. Lord knows we’ve done hasty jobs with the intention of coming back to the task.

  • Reply
    Wanda Devers
    July 6, 2021 at 11:12 am

    I have heard it all my life. usually it applies to me when I have company coming. I’m a poor housekeeper and have so much needed doing that what doesn’t show so much gets “a lick and a promise”.

  • Reply
    July 6, 2021 at 10:53 am

    I actually envy folks who can give something a lick and a promise. My Mom once warned me “”All work and no play makes Jack a Dull boy.” We can spend all our time working or some spend their time playing. My Dad always had the ability to do hard work but seemed unrushed. He took time for people. I try to do the latter now, and not let the work rule.

  • Reply
    Sanford McKinney
    July 6, 2021 at 10:35 am

    The promise, I have always thought, was that you were promising to do a better job the next time when you had more time, energy, etc.?
    My Dad used to tell us, “A job worth doing is a job worth doing right”.

  • Reply
    July 6, 2021 at 10:23 am

    Oh, I read one of your side lists on Appalachian History and noted they had a article on the word “Tarnation.” Haven’t thought of that word in probably 45 years, but I remember that word from my grandparents. I don’t think I’ve heard “Lick and a Promise” in 45 years either but it unfolds a memory that is sweet. Usually, those words were used when combing one’s hair in a hurry to get to church or work and one was running late.

  • Reply
    Kat Swanson
    July 6, 2021 at 10:07 am

    In Wise co va. ,we heard that phrase but were not allowed to do that….like Yoda says….DO OR DO NOT…THERE IS NO TRY.
    I so love the comments from Dom today…and Randy, I know what you mean. Finding any motivation is hard for me too now….I live in between the lick and the promise now.
    Let’s all give ourselves a break….do what you can, when you can, as well as you can.

  • Reply
    July 6, 2021 at 10:03 am

    i don’t think I have used it but I remember hearing it.

  • Reply
    Ann Applegarth
    July 6, 2021 at 9:57 am

    Yes, I have heard and used it all my life. But I never thought of it as a bad thing — it’s just
    what you did when you didn’t have time to do a complete job.

  • Reply
    Helen Jones
    July 6, 2021 at 9:31 am

    I, too, have heard but seldom used this saying. I think it’s synonymous with “gotta lick that calf again”, the one I still use.

  • Reply
    Dennis M Morgan
    July 6, 2021 at 9:25 am

    I have heard and used “A Lick and a Promise” As a child one of my chores was to rake the yard but I really did not want to so I did it with a like and a promise! As an adult I have also done certain things with a lick and a promise.

  • Reply
    Emily from Austin, Texas
    July 6, 2021 at 9:21 am

    Yes, I have heard it all my life but it is now more common amongst older people and I haven’t used it myself in a while, but
    will revive it now that you all have brought it up. Thanks, Tipper and readers.

  • Reply
    Rosamary Christiansen
    July 6, 2021 at 9:19 am

    When growing up, my life experience is spot on with Ron Stephens response to todays blog.
    This also also put me in the mind of one I heard mom say quite often…”I had to lick my calf over again.” She meant her first attempt turned out so badly, she had to go from start to finish again.

  • Reply
    Ron Banks
    July 6, 2021 at 9:18 am

    I’ve heard and used this phrase my whole life.
    There have been times when due to lack of time or more pressing matters that I’ve had to give a task a lick and a promise to do better next time.

  • Reply
    Donald Wells
    July 6, 2021 at 9:18 am

    We may be more so ,living in a day of,A LICK AND A PROMISE. Let’s dont be to hard on ourselves ,we’re trying. Getting older brings about changes, we just do the best we can.

  • Reply
    Frances Jackson
    July 6, 2021 at 9:17 am

    Oh yes, that was a common saying in the Ozarks when I was growing up. It didn’t seem to me to indicate any kind of sloppy haphazard work, simply, as was said above, someone caught in a rush with too many things to be done at once, and so a few things got a lick and a promise. Later, when there was more time and the excitement died down, one would go back and do the “promise” part.
    In my case, it might be a phone call from my husband, saying he was bringing someone home for lunch with him. Our agreement was that he could always feel free to do this; I just asked that he gave me 30 minutes’ warning.
    The focus would be on seeing that there was enough lunch to feed a couple of guests, while hastily redding up the living room and the bathroom– no deep cleaning, just a lick and a promise.

    • Reply
      Patricia Price
      July 6, 2021 at 5:17 pm

      Frances, this is how we alwaya used the saying, too!

  • Reply
    July 6, 2021 at 8:55 am

    My parents never said the phrase but my in-laws did. Maybe that is because my parents rarely ever halfway finished a job and some of my in-laws either never started a job or didn’t finish it when they did. It took me awhile to understand their lick and promise mode that was so different than the way I was raised.

  • Reply
    Sheryl Paul
    July 6, 2021 at 8:53 am

    Oh my gosh yes, my mother and her friends

  • Reply
    [email protected]
    July 6, 2021 at 8:49 am

    She gave it “a lick and a promise” is something I’ve heard and used since I was a young’un. Makes me think of something my Aunt Ruby used to say when I gave the dishes a lick and a promise – “You better go back and lick your calf over.” After having raised cattle, I get it.

  • Reply
    dom D
    July 6, 2021 at 8:48 am

    I’m from Sussex in southern England, and this was certainly a common phrase when I was growing up in the 1970s and 80s, used by my mother (and her mother before her). After a busy day of exploring and getting dirty in the countryside, we’d come home too late for a bath: she’d roll her eyes and use a damp flannel (wash cloth) to wipe our faces, pits and bits and refer to it as “lick and a promise of a ‘proper’ wash tomorrow” – usually shortened to just “a lick and a promise”. It’s interesting to discover how widespread this phrase is.

  • Reply
    July 6, 2021 at 8:14 am

    I have heard and used this phrase all of my life. I am afraid this has became something I do a lot more often now, it just seems like I don’t care or have the desire to do anything better.

    • Reply
      Ed Ammons
      July 6, 2021 at 10:08 am

      I know how you feel Randy. My wife also died unexpectedly. She has been gone for over three years and I still haven’t been able to get back on track. It’s not what we had planned for. I had never thought of how to live alone. Statistics say there is an 80% likelihood that she would outlive me and so I planned my life accordingly. I get a lot of advice but it’s not from people who have lost their wife. There don’t seem to be any of them around.
      I don’t do a lot of “a lick and promise” work any more. I just don’t do it at all. There seems no point.
      If you want to ask me anything or give me any advice, you have my email address!

      • Reply
        July 6, 2021 at 5:28 pm

        Ed, I appreciate your comment, I still have my son and two grandsons to live for but it is a struggle to have the will power to even get out of bed much less do anything else. After so many years of not having much time with each other because of work, it was a joy just to go to the grocery store or do some other simple thing together. She was retired for 7 months. I know people mean well but it is easy to say things will get better when your wife is still with you.

  • Reply
    Larry Paul Eddings
    July 6, 2021 at 8:09 am

    Yes, I’ve heard that expression all my life. What’s more, I’ve seen it all my life.

  • Reply
    Ron Stephens
    July 6, 2021 at 8:07 am

    This was one of the expressions my Mom said but I do not recall ever hearing Dad say it. Hmmmmm.

    I have a bit of a different take on its meaning though. To me it was not about doing sloppy, “gettin’ by” work. Rather it meant being caught in the press of too many urgent things to be able to give some of them the attention they need. So the “lick” is to just get the worst to keep things from getting way out of hand and doing a good job of that. The “promise” part was to come back as soon as one could and do a thorough job. This idea is particularly appropriate to garden work where growth makes the change. My Mom would sometimes add the phrase “until we can do better” which was a way to get the ‘promise’ part in.

  • Reply
    Margie G
    July 6, 2021 at 8:02 am

    Lick and a promise has been heard but I never really knew what it means. The gal across the street cleans (if she cleans) with a lick and promise. I’m only repeating what I learned in a sentence for practice…. lol.

  • Reply
    July 6, 2021 at 7:53 am

    Yes, I’ve heard it many times. I’ve been so busy this summer my garden has only got a lick and a promise.

  • Reply
    Donna W
    July 6, 2021 at 7:35 am

    I’m afraid I still use the phrase. That’s mostly how I keep house and garden going. True confessions.

  • Reply
    Janet Smart
    July 6, 2021 at 7:34 am

    I’ve used that expression all my life. I didn’t get around to commenting on yesterday’s post, but my blackberries are just starting to ripen. I picked a cup and they will be in my oatmeal this morning. My favorite blackberry cobbler recipe is where I roll the dough out, spread blackberries out on it and roll it up like a pinwheel and put a mixture of water and sugar on it and bake. Delicious! I have a bunch of blackberry recipes on my website. (Writing in the BlackBerry patch)

  • Reply
    Gayle Larson
    July 6, 2021 at 7:08 am

    I have to admit now that I am over 80 I will give some things a lick and a promise. I do go back and do it right when I have more energy. It has been too hot to go outside and work so my flower beds do not get weeded like they should. I try to go out early in the morning but sometimes they just get a lick and a promise as I walk by.
    I enjoyed the girls so much in downtown Murphy Sat. They sure have blossomed into wonderful young women.

  • Reply
    Miss Cindy
    July 6, 2021 at 6:59 am

    All my life I heard lick an a promise to describe a job not well done and a projected job as… just give it a lick and a promise and we’ll be done! I haven’t heard this in a long time but I used to hear it often and I haven’t heard of it in years.

  • Reply
    Don byers
    July 6, 2021 at 6:37 am


  • Reply
    July 6, 2021 at 6:37 am

    “Lick and promise” was a common phrase growing up. I don’t think I’ve heard it in a while. “Cut and cover” was a similar saying meaning the same thing I often heard.

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