Spit(ting| and) images

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Bob Moore was taken aback by "spit and image" in Frank Bruni's 9/9/2014 NYT Op-Ed, and wondered whether it was an eggcorn for "spitting image":

I worry about the combustible tension between our abysmal regard for the Congress that we’ve got and a near certainty that the Congress we’re about to get will be its spit and image: familiar faces, timeworn histrionics, unending paralysis.

Ben Zimmer added a note about this to the Eggcorn Database back in 2005, noting Larry Horn's argument that both "spitting image" and "spit and image" are probably re-interpretations of an original "spitten image":

Most major dictionaries report that _spitting image_ is an alteration of _spit and image_. In an article in American Speech, however, Larry Horn argues that the expression was originally _spitten image_ (_spitten_ being a now-archaic dialectal form of the past participle of _spit_), and that both _spit and image_ and _spitting image_ are later reinterpretations. (The _American Speech_ link requires a subscription to Project Muse — see also Michael Quinion’s summary at World Wide Words). Horn’s article also discusses various eggcornish reanalyses of _in_/_and_/_-in’_/_-en_, some of which appear elsewhere in the database (e.g., off the beat and path, once and a while).

Bob observed that the Google Books ngram viewer indicates that "spitting image" and "spit and image" ran neck and neck (neck in neck?) until about 1960, when "spitting image" began a steep rise to dominance:


  1. Table Saws said,

    September 14, 2014 @ 9:49 am

    Where did the phrase "spitting image" come from? Does the phrase "spitting image" means "exact likeness"?

    [(myl) From the linked explanation by Michael Quinion:

    Larry Horn, Professor of Linguistics at Yale, argues convincingly that the original form was actually spitten image, using the old dialectal past participle form of spit. He suggests that the phrase was reinterpreted when that form went out of use, first as spit ’n’ image and then as spit and image or spitting image.

    But why spit? One view is that it’s the same as our usual meaning of liquid ejected from the mouth, perhaps suggesting that one person is as like the other as though he’d been spat out by him. But some writers make a connection here with seminal ejaculation, which may account for the phrase being used originally only of the son of a father.


  2. Yuval said,

    September 14, 2014 @ 11:01 am

    Well, the British TV series only started in 1984, so it may have been a catalyst but not the cause for the trend.

  3. bratschegirl said,

    September 14, 2014 @ 11:50 am

    Had to run to the dictionary shelf when I saw this one. My American Heritage, in the entry for "spit," lists "spit and image," meaning perfect likeness, with no reference whatsoever to "spitting image," which is the only way I'd ever heard it until just now. Our OED has "the very spit of," meaning the exact image, likeness, or counterpart of. Fascinating!

  4. ensiform said,

    September 14, 2014 @ 12:22 pm

    In the book Room, which is set in America, British author Emma Donogue has one of her characters explain the phrase, "the spit of" where Americans would say "the spitting image of." Some reviewers noted that error on her part, so it stuck in my mind.

  5. Levantine said,

    September 14, 2014 @ 3:07 pm

    The possible origin of the phrase as quoted from Michael Quinion reminds me of a Turkish expression that describes someone who very much resembles a particular relative (usually an ancestor): "It's as if s/he was blown out of his/her nose."

  6. Geoff Nunberg said,

    September 14, 2014 @ 3:08 pm

    A lot of this ground is covered in Larry Horn's paper, mentioned above: "Spitten Image: Etymythology and Fluid Dynamics," in American Speech 79.1 (2004) 33-58. I would not put it past Larry to have written the paper purely so as to provide himself with an occasion for heading a section, "Great Expectorations."

  7. David Morris said,

    September 14, 2014 @ 3:33 pm

    I remember reading many years ago that the phrase was originally 'spirit and image'. A brief online search shows some inconclusive references to this (eg 'The Straight Dope' website).

  8. Gerry Delahunty said,

    September 14, 2014 @ 3:54 pm

    To ensiform–Emma Donoghue is Irish, not British. From her bio at http://emmadonoghue.com/emma-donoghue.html

    Emma Donoghue

    Born in Dublin, Ireland, in October 1969, I am the youngest of eight children of Frances and Denis Donoghue (the literary critic, Henry James Professor at New York University). I attended Catholic convent schools in Dublin, apart from one eye-opening year in New York at the age of ten. In 1990 I earned a first-class honours BA in English and French from University College Dublin (unfortunately, without learning to actually speak French). I moved to England, and in 1997 received my PhD (on the concept of friendship between men and women in eighteenth-century English fiction) from the University of Cambridge. From the age of 23, I have earned my living as a writer, and have been lucky enough to never have an ‘honest job’ since I was sacked after a single summer month as a chambermaid. After years of commuting between England, Ireland, and Canada, in 1998 I settled in London, Ontario, where I live with Chris Roulston and our son Finn (10) and daughter Una (6).

  9. Sili said,

    September 14, 2014 @ 5:47 pm


    It's the same in Danish.

    http://ordnet.dk/ods/ordbog?query=n%C3%A6se – sense I.4.3)

  10. Ali said,

    September 14, 2014 @ 6:11 pm

    Levantine, Sili

    It is the same also in Italian
    http://www.treccani.it/vocabolario/sputare/ (last three lines)

    Maybe it is a common imagery in many European languages.

  11. marie-lucie said,

    September 14, 2014 @ 9:58 pm

    The French equivalent is le portrait craché "the spitten portrait".

  12. marie-lucie said,

    September 14, 2014 @ 10:01 pm

    And craché '(adj) spit out, spitten' does not even need the word "portrait", as in C'est son père tout craché "He is just like his father" (lit. "He his father spit out").

  13. marie-lucie said,

    September 14, 2014 @ 10:02 pm

    correction: 'He is his father all spit out'

  14. Faldone said,

    September 15, 2014 @ 5:53 am

    When did Wiktionary become a "major dictionary?

    [(myl) The link (from the original Eggcorn Database entry) originally went to the Bartleby online version of the AHD. Since that is now defunct, as is Encarta, the set of accessible online English dictionaries is limited. I substituted the first plausible thing that came to hand — and in fact, overall Wiktionary is pretty good, at least for English.]

  15. Lane said,

    September 15, 2014 @ 6:10 am

    A friend of the family (from Milledgeville, GA), noting on Facebook that my son looks a lot like me, also says "As we say down south, he looks like you spat him out." I don't know that it's only a southernism, or if it's a general folksy-country-ism.

  16. Killer said,

    September 15, 2014 @ 7:34 pm

    As a kid I was given, around 1970, a Hot Wheels car called the "Splittin' Image." It was a two-seater, but split down the middle by the engine and exhaust pipes; the driver and the passenger sat in separate cockpits. My dad looked at the name and chuckled; his explanation was the first time I heard of the phrase "spitting image."

  17. J. W. Brewer said,

    September 16, 2014 @ 11:44 am

    Is it cross-linguistically the case that children are prototypically noted to be the spittin' image of their fathers (or more remote male ancestors) rather than their mothers (or more remote female ancestors), with some other stock phrase being used for the latter sort of resemblance?

    Note that there is some use of "spittin'" in informal AmEng as an intensifier, at least in "spittin' mad" and "spittin' angry," but that may be a very emotion-specific notion that doesn't extend. Although someone out there thought "Spit'in Anger" would be a good name for a documentary film about (quoting the promotional website) the "anger that resides in young black males as a result of not having a nurturing relationship with their fathers," and I wonder if there is some wordplay lurking there on "spittin' image," i.e. the anger being derived from the absence in ones childhood of the progenitor whose spittin' image one was supposed to be. http://www.spitinanger.com/

  18. ensiform said,

    September 16, 2014 @ 10:07 pm

    Jeez, the Irish sure are touchy about being British.

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