Date: Tue, 6 Feb 1996 09:05:16 EST


Subject: spitten image [was: The skinny on PROVE]

OK, by popular demand, my skinny on spitten/spit 'n'/spittin' images

David Barnhart presents the received view:

Perhaps _spitting image_ (See Barnhart Dictionary of Ety.) comes from the noun

_spit_ meaning "exact likeness." Such usage is noted from 1825 (OED, n #2,

def. 3) "the very spit of..." That suggests _spit 'n image_.

I here incorporate the theory I came up with (prompted by a suggestion of

Debra Halperin Biasca) a few years ago. I'd love any feedback about whether

this is in fact plausible. The below was posted on Linguist List:

Date: Tue, 28 Sep 93 10:21:02 EDT


Subject: Re reanalysis: the spittin' image

The recent discussion of metathesis, metanalysis, and reanalysis evokes our

extended colloquy almost exactly a year ago, on that subset of reanalysis

due to folk etymology--the category of "pullet surprises". One of

the all-time pullet surprise winners, along with the doggy dog world and the

devil-make-hair attitude, is 'spittin' image'. The standard story, as Mike

Kac mentioned during last year's exchange (citing William Safire), is that

the earlier 'spit and image' had become opaque with the loss of the relevant

meaning of the nominal 'spit', and speakers reanalyzed the expression as if it

contained the participle, hence 'spittin(g) image', which is now frequently

seen in print. (The meaning that might be associated with expectorating

likenesses isn't all that transparent either, but let's leave that aside.)

Now it's clear that the source of the nominal is the trope involving the

verb, as indicated by the following OED citations:

(1690) We are of our father the devil, like him as if spit out of his


(1788: Grose, Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue) He is as like his father

as if he was spit out of his mouth; said of a child much

resembling his father.

Slightly later, the nominal emerges, generally in the phrase 'the very spit

of'. The OED provides citations for this meaning of 'spit' (='the exact

image, likeness, or counterpart of') from 1825 ('a daughter...the very spit of

the old captain') and 1836 ('You are a queer fellow--the very spit of your

father'), and somewhat later it appears that 'spit' ceased being, as it were,

a very-polarity item, occurring as well in the collocation 'spit and...':

(1859) the very spit and fetch of Queen Cleopatra

(1895) She's like the poor lady that's dead and gone, the spit an' image

she is.

Now, of course, it's pretty much ONLY the 1895 use that survives: As

Webster 3 notes, 'spit' in the meaning 'perfect likeness' is 'usu. used in the

phrase "spit and image" the spit and image of his father '. But, as just

electronically suggested to me by Debra Halperin Biasca, are we sure this is

really 'the spit and image'? How about 'the spitten image', where 'spitten'

is an instance of the (dialectally attested) past participle of 'spit'? (As

in the anti-cloning ordinance: Thou shalt make no spitten images.) One

argument for such a derivation is the parallel use of the participle in French:

my dictionary cites 'C'est son portrait tout crachE, c'est lui tout crachE' as

'fam.' for 'c'est son portrait tres rassemblant', i.e. his spitten image.

Note also that even the 1895 citation above is homophonous, as transcribed,

with the dialectal past participle as opposed to the conjoined nominal.

(Crucially, it's spit 'N' image -- never spit AND image.)

Now if our 'spitten' etymology is correct, that would still leave 'spittin'

image', with the present participle, as a folk etymology, but with a different

source; this time the opacity arises because a given speaker is unfamiliar

with the dialectal PAST participle 'spitten'. And since all three (spitten'

image, spittin' image, spit 'n' image) are homophonous (before the hyper-

urbanisms 'spittinG image', 'spit anD image' are invented), there's no way to

tell from the phonology.


So that's my story, and I'm stickin to it. Not as colorful as Seth's version,

perhaps, but...