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.

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About Santo D'Agostino

I have taught mathematics and physics since the mid 1980s. I have also been a textbook writer/editor since then. Currently I am working independently on a number of writing and education projects while teaching physics at my local university. I love math and physics, and love teaching and writing about them. My blog also discusses education, science, environment, etc. https://qedinsight.wordpress.com Further resources, and online tutoring, can be found at my other site http://www.qedinfinity.com
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6 Responses to Words, Episode 7: Spitten Image, Spitting Image, Spit and Image; Which Is Correct??

  1. Sam says:

    Interesting post, I love all these little language quirks, and boy does English have its share!

    However, I’m going to have to disagree with you and Horn about “best usage”. The best usage is the usage which people use! If the phrase people used was “paperclip image”, then that would be the best usage. That’s just how language works. Now, if you can manage to convince the whole Anglosphere to adopt your position and start using “spitten image”……

    • Hi Sam,

      I largely agree with you, and I have to admit I’m not consistent when it comes to English usage. I recognize that it is a mish-mash language, and so trying to say what is “sensible” or “best” is hopeless, as so much of it is conventional. I also recognize that the language evolves, and I accept that this is fine, but in some ways I tend to be a minder of the status-quo, as I believe that if the evolution is too fast then chaos will ensue, and it will be difficult to communicate. (I hope my attitude doesn’t lean over into pedantry, but I’m not objective enough to be able to judge this!)

      My inconsistency can be well noted by a couple of examples: I’m bothered by the current common usage “different than” which grates on me, as I’m used to the “different from” that I grew up with, and yet I don’t mind the occasional split infinitive when it better expresses what I mean.

      There’s something that appeals to me about “spitten image,” and I believe it’s connected to my mathematical training, which is part of the reason I thought it worth writing about. But I think your attitude is entirely reasonable. So perhaps I can square things by changing (in future) my phrase “best usage” to something else … maybe “my preferred usage.” I’ll leave the wording as is in the post, though, so that your comment and my reply will make sense to other readers.

      Thanks for the thoughtful and thought-provoking comment, Sam!

      All the best,
      Santo

  2. Mike says:

    “Now I have never made an error in my life (I thought I had made an error once, but I was mistaken).”

    Very witty, Professor!

  3. Joe says:

    “I’m bothered by the current common usage “different than” which grates on me, as I’m used to the “different from” that I grew up with, and yet I don’t mind the occasional split infinitive when it better expresses what I mean.”
    ———————————————————————————————————————
    I guess each of us has certain things that grate on us. The following four phonetic faux pas make me full out flustered:

    ‘expresso’
    ‘brooshetta’
    ‘nocky’
    ‘taglee-atelly’

    Arggggh!

    • Agreed! Along the same lines I would add using “biscotti” in the singular (“Please pass me a biscotti.”) For a local example, I find “Antipastos di Roma” a kind of erroneous achievement, as it’s wrong in each language. I could live with either “Antipasti di Roma” or “Antipastos of Rome,” but this particular mixed marriage doesn’t work well for me.

      We should get together soon for some gelatos …

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