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Spitin' image

Posted by ESC on March 03, 2000

In Reply to: Spit posted by ESC on March 01, 2000

: : Does anyone know the origin of spitting image, or, failing that, spitting distance? How did people start using this phrase?

: I think spitting distance is self-explanatory. The distance one can spit. That's a guess.

: "SPITTING IMAGE. There is far from complete agreement among students of language as to whether the 'spit' in this expression comes from the same root (Anglo-Saxon 'spittan') as the common word meaning 'to eject from mouth.' One authority, claiming that the phrase means 'speaking likeness,' quotes a source dating back to 1602 to support his claim that the two words are the same. However, one of our early collaborators on reference books, Harold Wentworth, suggests in his 'American Dialect Dictionary' a different source. He notes that the phrase 'He's the very spit of his father' is widely heard in the South and suggests that 'spit' in this sense is probably derived from 'spirit.' Nothing that the letter 'r' is often indistinct in Southern speech, he suggests that the phrase may actually have started as 'He's the very spirit and image of his father.'" From "Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins" by William and Mary Morris (HarperCollins, New York, 1988).

Another source traces the phrase back further: "The germ of the idea behind this phrase has been traced back to 1400 by Partridge, who cites the early example, 'He's .as like these as th' hads't spit him.' Similarly, in England and the southern U.S., the expression 'he's the very spit of his father' is commonly heard. This may mean 'he's as like his father as if he had been spit out of his mouth,' but could also be corruption of 'spirit and image.' If the last is true, it would explain the use of 'and image' in the expression since the middle of the last century'." From "The Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins" by Robert Hendrickson (Facts on File, New York, 1997).