Words, Episode 7: Spitten Image, Spitting Image, Spit and Image; Which Is Correct??

Some years ago I went on some sort of rant to the members of my household about “spitting image” and how it’s incorrect usage. The phrase is commonly used regarding a child that looks very much like one of its parents or another of its ancestors.

I argued that “spitten image” is correct, because it’s as if the image of the original has been spat out of him or her, to produce the copy. This makes sense to me, because “spitten” seemed to me to mean that the image had been spat out in the past.

But, I argued, the phrase “spitting image” suggests that the image is spitting, which sure doesn’t sound right to me. The spitting happened to produce the image; the phrase is not meant to suggest that the image is in the act of spitting.

Well, a number of years passed, and then one day (a few years ago) my daughter brought home a controversy from her high-school English class. She had remembered my rant, and had engaged her teacher about this issue when it came up in class. A dictionary was consulted, and “spitten image” was nowhere to be found, and my daughter came home with the news that I was wrong.

Now I have never made an error in my life (I thought I had made an error once, but I was mistaken), so I immediately dropped everything and went to work. I consulted the dictionaries that I had on my shelf (they agreed with my daughter’s English teacher), and then consulted some online sources. No dice. Was I going prematurely senile? How on earth had I gotten this “spitten” idea? Alas, I could no longer remember the source. Perhaps it just sounded right? Could it be that I was arguing on such flimsy grounds?

Maybe it’s my mathematics training; after all, functions associate elements of the domain with elements of the range. However, we often think of these associations as movements, and colloquial mathematical language reflects this, as we commonly speak of functions that act on elements of the domain and send them to elements of the range. The latter are commonly called images. So I’m used to thinking of images as things that have been produced by an action of some sort; for me, conceiving of an image that has been produced by the action of being spat out of the original is natural.

A little further investigation brought me to a delightful paper by Yale professor of linguistics Laurence R. Horn, entitled Spitten image: Etymythology and Fluid Dynamics, published in the scholarly journal American Speech (Volume 79, Number 1, Spring 2004, pp. 33-58). My university library did not have access to the journal, but Dr. Horn was kind enough to send me a copy of his paper, which I read with pleasure. He convincingly argues that “spitten image” is the best usage, and presents copious cultural and historical evidence for his position.

It was nice to have my intuition confirmed by someone who knows what he’s talking about. And the jocular title of his paper is attractive to we scientifically-minded folks. He argues that semen is the relevant fluid that is spat out! If you can’t get access to Horn’s paper, you can get some insight into it from a 2010 article by Heidi Stevens in the Chicago Tribune.

All of this came to mind again today thanks to Warren Clements and his delightful Word Play column in the Globe and Mail.

(This post first appeared at my other (now deleted) blog, and was transferred to this blog on 21 January 2021.)