Q&A: The origin of “spruce up”

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, we have spruce almighty…

Q: Hey AWC – I’ve been thinking a lot about trees lately.

A: Nice to see you branching out rather than getting stumped…

Q: Hilarious.

A: Wooden have expected that…

Q: Okay.

A: You should log these thoughts somewhere…

Q: Please stop.

A: Sure. What’s your tree question?

Q: It’s about the spruce tree. Why does it appear in the phrase, “to spruce things up”? 

A:  Well, a spruce tree is of course a type of evergreen pine tree – commonly found in places like Canada or Norway.

Q: Norway?

A: Yes way. And if the seeds are borne in the USA, they are named Spruce Springsteen.

Q: Hardy ha ha. They’re used as Christmas trees a lot, right?

A: That’s correct. Add some decorations and lights and you’ll really spruce up the place.

Q: Okay – so THAT is what I mean! WHY do we say “spruce up”? Surely it’s not to do with decorating a spruce tree?

A: Well, it might surprise you to learn that when “spruce” isn’t busy being a tree, it holds down a second job with a completely different definition.

Q: I get it, times are tough.

A: The Macquarie Dictionary lists this second definition of “spruce” as an adjective – meaning smart in dress or appearance; trim; neat; dapper”.

Q: Ooooooh, it’s all becoming clear now.

A: It sure is. The phrase “spruce up” simply means to make something (or oneself) spruce – to look smart.

Q: So this dapper meaning came later, yes?

A: Not exactly. You see, the word “spruce” came from the Old French “Pruce” – itself a name for the former European region of Prussia (which spanned parts of modern day Germany, Poland, Lithuania, Belgium, Denmark, Czech Republic and Russia). Throughout the 1400s and 1500s, Prussia gained a reputation for being a “land of luxuries” – with many leather and timber goods imported to Britain and collectively known as “spruce”.

Q: Made in Prussia!

A: That’s right. The adjective “spruce” first appeared in English in the 1580s – taken from  “spruce leather”, a high quality product considered very smart at the time.

Q: So being “spruce” was named after the fancy leather?

A: That’s right. From there, the verb “to spruce” – as in to make smart, dapper, and so on – quickly followed. And the tree itself was officially named in the 1600s – at a time when people thought it was unique to Prussia.

Q: Which it isn’t.

A: Nope. Just like all fir trees aren’t named Douglas.

A: So “spruce” was named after Prussia – with the adjective named after the fancy leather and the noun after the fancy wood.

A: Correct – you’ve got to the root of it! 

Q: More tree puns!

A: Sorry, we couldn’t “leave” any behind. Anyway, there was even the verb “sprucify”, but that’s considered rare today. The noun (tree) is what most people think of, although the adjective does make an appearance from time to time.

Q: Example?

A: “He looked very spruce in his tuxedo.” It’s often used in a dapper, well-dressed, business-suit kind of way. Think Colin Firth in Kingsman.

Q: Umbrella guns and bar fights?

A: No, just the well-dressed part.

Q: Hey, before we go. Did you know that I can cut down a spruce tree just by looking at it?

A: What? No way.

Q: Yes way – I saw it with my own eyes!

A: …

Do you have a question you’d like us to explore? Email it to us today!

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