The Grammarphobia Blog

Why do we say “spitting image”?

Q: I just finished reading My Home Is Far Away by Dawn Powell, which was written in 1944. The phrase “spit and image” appears at least three times. Most people today would say “spitting image.” I guess they are mishearing “spit and image” as “spittin’ image.” What is the derivation of the original phrase?

A: “Spit and image” is another of those phrases that can’t be pinned down with certainty. But it’s even more complicated than you’d guess! Michael Quinion, in his website World Wide Words, discusses the various versions of the phrase (“spitting image,” “spitten image,” “spit and image,” “the very spit of,” and “dead spit for”) and several theories of their origin. Here’s an excerpt:

“The two most common suggest that our modern phrase [‘spitting image’] is, via one or other of these forms, a corruption of spit and image. This contains the even older spit, which existed by itself in phrases such as the last two above. 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.

“Quite a different origin is suggested by other writers, who argue that spit is really an abbreviation of spirit, suggesting that someone is so similar to another as to be identical in mind as well as body. Professor Horn is sure that this supposed derivation is wrong.”