A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

What's the origin of "spitting image"?

December 13, 2001

Dear Straight Dope:

Where did the term "spitting image" come from? I was listening to the radio the other day, and a song came up that said the woman was the "spitting image of [my] father." I mean, okay, people have told me I look a lot like my mom, but I've never seen them spit while saying it. What gives?

Get out your towels, this is going to get messy.

The term "spittin' image" is a shortening of the original "spit and image," which means that you are both the stuff that your parents are made of (the spit) and you look like them, too (the image). There are many folk etymologies (fanciful stories made up to explain the usage), but this is the only one that has any basis in fact. Webster's says that one of the older uses dispenses with the image, as in "You are the very spit of your father," i.e., he might just have spit you out. 

Some of the folk etymologies have the spit (expectoration) and image (a doll) used in a black magic ceremony to clone you; others cite "spat" (the offspring of shellfish) as part of the origin.  According to word sleuths William and Mary Morris, some linguistic experts think "spit" is derived from "spirit," noting that the southern pronunciation of the letter r is sometimes indistinct. In other words, the original would have been, "She's the very spirit and image of her mother." Other authorities favor the phrase "spitting image" means a "speaking likeness" and reference a 1602 source in support of this.  Personally I spit on these ideas . . . well, that's put it a bit strongly. But I know who I believe. 

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