(Not so) strictly spitting

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According to Michael Grynbaum, "When Passengers Spit, Bus Drivers Take Months Off", NYT 5/24/2010:

It could be the cutbacks to the city’s transportation system, or a general decline in urban civility. Perhaps people are just in a collective bad mood.

What else could explain why New Yorkers — notoriously hardened to the slings and arrows of everyday life here — are spitting on bus drivers?

Of all the assaults that prompted a bus operator to take paid leave in 2009, a third of them, 51 in total, “involved a spat upon,” according to statistics the Metropolitan Transportation Authority released on Monday.

That apparent use of "spat upon" as a noun wasn't a mistake, as confirmed by another example later in the same article:

Almost no arrests have been reported for spitting on a driver, said Mr. Smith, who noted that a police officer “must witness the spat upon to give a summons.”

It's easy for "spat upon" to be used as a modifier:

The image of the spat-upon Vietnam veteran, explains Jerry Lembcke, himself a Vietnam veteran and one of the persuasive talking heads who appears in the new film, helped maintain the important fiction that opposition to the war came strictly from outside the military.

And like any modifier, "spat upon" is happy to stand by itself as a noun, for instance here in James Baldwin's Go Tell it on the Mountain:

They were the despised and rejected, the wretched and the spat upon, the earth's offscouring; and he was in their company, and they would swallow up his soul.

But this normal nounification involves an implicit "ones", so that "the X-ed" means "the X-ed ones", not "the process of someone being X-ed".

In the MTA's usage, "involved a spat upon" seems to mean "involved an incident of (a driver) being spat upon"; and "must witness the spat upon" seems to mean "must witness the incident of (a driver) being spat upon".

The creation of manner, process or result nouns from bare verbs is fairly common — bruise, crash, push — and sometimes people have trouble with new coinages of this type (e.g. "It's a big ask", 8/7/2004).  But I can't think of any other examples of a past participle being used as a process nominal. It's as if we talked about "a crashed" or "a pushed" instead of "a crash" or "a push".

Adding the preposition upon doesn't really change this. There are plenty of result or process nominals consisting of a bare verb and a preposition: one that's been in the news recently is blow-out "A rapid, uncontrolled uprush of fluid from an oil well". But it's "a blow out", not "a blown out".

I think that the Transit Authority's "spat upon" is an instance of a much less constrained process, whereby nearly-arbitrary strings of words come to be used as modifiers or as nominal heads: "the nothing-left-to-chance approach",  "make-it-from-scratch traditionalists",  "a case of why not". We've coined a few of these here at Language Log Plaza: "WTF grammar" is an example that comes to mind.

In the case of "spat upon", the history is presumably something like this. Dozens of times a year, the bureaucracy needs to document incidents where a driver is spat upon.  In a prominent place on the leave-request form, there's a line for Nature of Incident, where the formula in such cases is "Driver was spat upon".  These are then naturally called "'Driver was spat upon' incidents".  But after processing a few dozen of them, people start staying things like "Here, I've got another 'spat upon' incident for you".  And after a few dozen more, it's just "Gee, that's the seventh 'spat upon' this month".

[Hat tip to Benjamin Esham]


  1. Russell said,

    May 25, 2010 @ 6:52 am

    I'm not enough of a linguistics master to classify this odd usage, but I had to read this headline on a Wikihow posting several times before I could parse it:

    "How to Add Facebook Like to Blogger"

  2. David Denison said,

    May 25, 2010 @ 6:57 am

    You might like to compare with another crime report shorthand, _twoc_. I don't know if this is still current, but it has been used in the UK for car theft (TWOC = "Taken Without Owner's Consent"). OED has entries from 1972 to 2002 as noun (from the 1990s it becomes a verb too). A nice comparison with your _spat upon_ is this citation from 1990:

    From the victim's point of view, ‘only a twoc’ has a very hollow ring to it.


  3. Mark N. said,

    May 25, 2010 @ 7:35 am

    In the context of classifying incidents, this feels vaguely similar to slang that shortens police-report nouns: "a disorderly", "an in-possession", "an under-the-influence", etc. All of them make some amount of sense if you take them as implicitly modifying a noun like "citation" or "charge" or "incident".

  4. Ray Girvan said,

    May 25, 2010 @ 8:18 am

    "The spat upon" reminds me of the use of "an infected" in 28 Weeks Later. What about "the spittee"?

    [(myl) What's odd about this use of "the spat upon" is that it doesn't mean "the person who was spat upon", but rather "the incident in which someone was spat upon".]

  5. KCinDC said,

    May 25, 2010 @ 9:18 am

    The use of "spat" rather than "spit" as the past participle seems surprisingly formal, but maybe not if it comes from bureaucratic language.

  6. John said,

    May 25, 2010 @ 9:27 am

    The spat-upon Vietnam vets is also a myth, btw. Here's an article about it that uses spat-upon in the expected adjectival sense:


  7. Ben Zimmer said,

    May 25, 2010 @ 10:13 am

    Mark N.'s examples are certainly relevant, but there's still a difference here. In the case of, say, "a drunk-and-disorderly," the offending party is implicitly modified by the adjectival phrase — it's "a citation given to someone who is drunk and disorderly." By that logic, wouldn't we expect the spitter and not the spittee to be identified by the elliptical expression?

  8. Charles said,

    May 25, 2010 @ 10:57 am

    It strikes me as an attempt to create jargon where jargon really isn't necessary. If you casually refer to "spat upons" it identifies you as being in the know, as far as the New York City bus system goes. But most jargon is a shorthand for something that requires some specialized knowledge; there's no specialized knowledge necessary to know that bus drivers don't like being spit on.

    Who spits on a bus driver anyway?

  9. carla said,

    May 25, 2010 @ 1:15 pm

    I would guess that this usage of "spat upon" comes from shorthand on a form upon which drivers report incidents of altercations with customers and the like. Something along the lines of:

    Nature of altercation.
    ___ Profanity
    ___ Spat upon
    ___ Physical assault

    It just has the sound to me of a category – that "51 spat upons" usage rings that sort of bell for me. Just a guess.

  10. Adrian Bailey (UK) said,

    May 25, 2010 @ 3:04 pm

    What carla said.

  11. Joshua said,

    May 25, 2010 @ 8:58 pm

    John: The claim that spat-upon Vietnam veterans are a myth has been debunked. See the blog posts by Jim Lindgren at the Volokh Conspiracy in February 2007; start at http://volokh.com/2007/02/page/7/ and then go back through Lindgren's later posts in the same month. (Sorry, I can't find a way to display them all on the same page.)

    This is not to say that all the stories of Vietnam veterans being spat upon are true. But there were 190 million+ Americans during the war, and I don't think Jerry Lembcke has sufficiently accounted for all the saliva produced during the war years for him to suggest that none of the 2.5 million veterans who served in Vietnam were spat upon.

  12. Jerome Rainey said,

    May 26, 2010 @ 1:04 am

    Jerome K. Jerome used "put upon" similar way in "Three Men In A Boat" (1889).

    [He's being asked to take possession of some smelly cheeses]

    “Madam,” I replied, “for myself I like the smell of cheese, and the journey the other day with them from Liverpool I shall ever look back upon as a happy ending to a pleasant holiday. But, in this world, we must consider others. The lady under whose roof I have the honour of residing is a widow, and, for all I know, possibly an orphan too. She has a strong, I may say an eloquent, objection to being what she terms `put upon.’ The presence of your husband’s cheeses in her house she would, I instinctively feel, regard as a `put upon’; and it shall never be said that I put upon the widow and the orphan.”

    [(myl) Nice — how did you find it? So now we have two examples of past-participle+preposition → process nominal. Any others?]

  13. David Cantor said,

    May 26, 2010 @ 4:35 am

    I see this kind of thing all the time in the corporate world, where various incidents must be regularly summarized in a table or graph. The short description for each type of incident rapidly turns into jargon.

  14. Adouma said,

    May 26, 2010 @ 5:57 am

    I'd be in favour of hyphenating this one. "Witness the spat-upon"; "twelve more spat-upons this week." Seems like it would be easier to identify it as a noun that way, and maybe start one step closer to figuring out its meaning.

  15. Aaron Davies said,

    May 26, 2010 @ 8:02 am

    this is the same transit system that labels their brochure racks with the notice "take one", and subsequently advises passengers to get the latest transit news by "picking up a take one" .

    [(myl) You're right: "For timetable details, visit http://www.mta.info or pick up a take-one at your station."

    But there's plenty of precedent for the "verb+object → noun" process in English, going back to old forms like "cut-purse" and "lack-wit". The "past-participle+preposition → noun" is rarer, I think.]

  16. Nijma said,

    May 26, 2010 @ 10:29 am

    From Simon and Garfunkel's 1970 "Blessed":

    Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit.
    Blessed is the lamb whose blood flows.
    Blessed are the sat upon, Spat upon, Ratted on,
    O Lord, Why have you forsaken me?
    I got no place to go,
    I've walked around Soho for the last night or so.
    Ah, but it doesn't matter, no.

    The Soho reference…New York again.

  17. fs said,

    May 26, 2010 @ 12:02 pm

    @Jerome Rainey: Thanks for that, a rather stand-out jewel of the comments on this post so far. Like myl, I too would like to know how you found that on such short notice!

    Personally I would say "spitting upon" to concisely express the event of someone spitting upon someone else, which seems in line with other, common usages such as "goings on", etc.

  18. Henning Makholm said,

    May 26, 2010 @ 9:25 pm

    It's not clear to me that Jerome's "put upon" is an example. "Put" is also the infinitive, in contrast to "spat".

  19. Jerome Rainey said,

    May 27, 2010 @ 12:15 pm

    I didn't find it, I just happen to know that book really well and the article dislodged it from my memory. There's a great vinyl recording by George Rose of the funnier bits of TMIAB — not available electronically, alas.

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