Date: Mon, 9 Mar 1998 11:53:25 -0500
From: Larry Horn laurence.horn[AT SYMBOL GOES HERE]YALE.EDU
Subject: Re: Spittin' Image

At 11:40 PM -0600 3/8/98, Donald M. Lance wrote:
FWIW. The term 'spittin' image / 'spitten image' has been discussed once,
maybe twice, on ads-l. The 75th-Anniverary edition of TIME Magazine has
this interesting letter:

Oct. 11, 1927
The records on "spittin' image" should certainly be kept straight. I don't
think that the expression has anything to do with saliva. It originated, I
believe, among the darkies of the South and the correct phrasing--without
dialect--is "spirit and image." It was originally used in speaking of some
person whose father had passed on--and the colored folks would say--"the
very spi't an' image of his daddy."
Joel Chandler Harris Jr.
Atlanta, Ga.


=46ar be it from me to spit on the spi't of Joel Chandler Harris Jr.
(although doing so on that of his esteemed father would have given me
greater pause), but I don't think this particular reconstruction is much
more than a curious folk etymology (and who better to endorse one than the
grand-nephew, as it were, of Uncle Remus?). As I noted in those threads to
which Donald Lance refers, the "spit" of "spit and image" has been around
for centuries, first attested in British English, which makes the "darkies"
attribution as unlikely as it is (now) offensive. Two early OED citations
of the noun:

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

"Spit" si, "spirit" no. My own nomination for the source of "spit and
image"/"spittin' image" itself, first contributed to Linguist on 9/28/93
and to this list on 2/6/96, was the dialectal participle "spitten", as
supported inter alia by the existence of the French counterpart "c'est son
portrait, tout crach=E9." Thus, "spitten image", reanalyzed (by those
outside the dialect area) as "spit 'n' image" or as "spittin(g) image", or
as "spit 'n' image" later itself reanalyzed as "spittin(g) image" through
another "mishearing". Thus with a loss of transparency the image or copy,
instead of being the object--what was spit out--becomes the subject, as the
original passive/past participle becomes an active/present one. Donald
himself enlivened the discussion with a related suggestion--

Could "spitten image" have originated as a reference to ejaculate rather
than to saliva/sputum? Seems as though I once heard someone offer that
etymology. Later "transformations" of the term were needed for spitten
images of mothers to occur. DMLance

--thereby plausibly accounting for the fact that early citations of both
nominal "spit" (on the 'copy' reading) and "spitVn image" all involve a
child as being the perfect spit (clone?) of the father rather than the
mother. If this is correct, Harris may be right in his claim that the
"spit" of this construction 'has nothing to do with saliva', but for a far
less "spiritual" reason than the one he offers.