Spitting Image (Origin)

by Craig Shrives

What Is the Origin of the Saying "Spitting Image"?

The term "spitting image" means an exact likeness.
Spitting Image (Origin)
The term "spitting image" has evolved from "spit and image." In this saying, the word "spit" means a copy. It stems from the idea of creating a copy of a person by spitting, like an oral birthing or a clone. This notion has been in circulation since at least the late 17th century as evidenced by its use in Irish dramatist George Farquhar's 1689 comedy "Love and a Bottle":
  • "Poor child! he's as like his own dadda as if he were spit out of his mouth."
Used in other cultures too, the idea of a "spit" being a clone was widespread in the 17th century, and it came to form part of the term "spit and image," which effectively means "a copy and a copy." By the end of the 19th century, "spit and image" was common.

According to Google's Ngram Viewer, the term "spitting image" first appears in 1843, but it doesn't break into popular language until the 1920s. One of the earliest examples features in Alice Hegan Rice's 1901 book "Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch":
  • "Oh, yes," answered Mrs. Wiggs, complacently; "there wouldn't be no trouble 'bout Billy promotm'. I 'spect he could take to writin' newspapers right away, if you could hold him down to it. He's jes' like his pa-the very spittin' image of him! Mr. Wiggs was so educated-the most fluent man in jography I ever seen!"
Grammatically speaking, with three "I"s in close proximity, the term "spitting image" is an example of assonance, which affords it some rhythm when spoken and likely contributes to its popularity.

Competing Theory

The term "spitting image" is a mispronunciation of "splitting image." This term describes the practice of creating a mirror image of wood grain by splitting it. It is a well-established decorative effect used by cabinet and musical-instrument makers.

Competing Theory

"Spit and image" is a mispronunciation of "spirit and image," with "spirit" being another metonym for a copy of a person.

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See Also

What are idioms? What is figurative language? A list of common grammar errors A list of easily confused words A list of sayings and proverbs

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