March 10, 2000
Cheryl Sharp wrote:
I have always heard this term used in reference to someone who bears a close resemblance to someone else. What is the derivation? And is it spitting image or spit and image?
Spitting image, a relatively informal term meaning 'exact likeness; counterpart', has been around in one form or another for about a century. It first appeared as spit and image, but other early spellings include spitten image, spit 'n' image, and spittin' image. These are now rarely seen.
The shift to spitting image is the result of phonetic reconstruction (early dictionaries called it "corruption"). Spit and, said in rapid continuous speech, is pronounced "SPIT-n," to rhyme with kitten. Spitting, informally spittin', is often said in exactly the same way, and interpreting "SPIT-n" as spitting instead of spit and was an understandable development. Spitting image, once considered a mistake, is increasingly current, although spit and image is still in use.
The spit in this term is the one that means 'saliva', not the one that holds your suckling pig over the fire. It is derived from the Old English verb spittan through Middle English spitten. But how did "spit" come to be associated with the idea of 'likeness'? DNA tests were far in the future.
The verb spit has been attested in statements about familial similarity since the 17th century. C. Nesse, in 1690, wrote, "We are of our father . . . as like him as if spit out of his mouth." From this verb use an extended noun sense emerged, and spit itself came to mean 'exact image'. We find examples from the 1820s in constructions like "She's the very spit of her," or "He's the dead spit of the old man."
"But," you ask, "doesn't that make spit and image redundant? Who would want to say 'he's the image and image of his father'?" Bergen and Cornelia Evans, in their 1957 A Dictionary of Contemporary American Usage, mention an alternative theory that posits a slurred pronunciation of spirit and image as a source of the term. This not only avoids semantic repetition but suggests a resemblance in both inner selves and outer appearance. Pretty as that theory is, the Evanses and most other historians of the language reject it.
Besides, the fact is that redundancy has long been a feature of English. James E. Clapp, in his forthcoming Random House Webster's Legal Dictionary, says at the entry for to have and to hold:
"The English language often places a higher value on rhythm, rhyme, and alliteration than on concision. . . .redundant expressions, like nooks and crannies, each and every, hale and hearty, part and parcel, safe and sound, are part of everyday speech, and the language would be poorer without the music they provide."
I couldn't have said it better.
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