spit and image » spitting image

Classification: English – questionable – nearly mainstream – and «» in/en

Originally entered by xerby, who commented:

Just a phrase, “spitting image”, I’d heard for about forty years. And then one day someone on the radio said “spit and image” which immediately made more sense to me. In the first we could easily visualize a boy picking up his father’s bad habits(spitting…like mothers don’t spit), or if you’ve ever seen a boy walking with his dad you’d see the same gait(as well as image). In the second instance, “spit” infers a more visceral, biological, connection.
And, of course, the visual “image” stays as part of the phrase.

Most major dictionaries report that _spitting image_ is an alteration of _spit and image_. In an article in American Speech, however, Larry Horn argues that the expression was originally _spitten image_ (_spitten_ being a now-archaic dialectal form of the past participle of _spit_), and that both _spit and image_ and _spitting image_ are later reinterpretations. (The _American Speech_ link requires a subscription to Project Muse — see also Michael Quinion’s summary at World Wide Words).

Horn’s article also discusses various eggcornish reanalyses of _in_/_and_/_-in’_/_-en_, some of which appear elsewhere in the database (e.g., off the beat and path, once and a while).

| link | entered by Ben Zimmer, 2005/05/04 |


  1. 1

    Commentary by Mat Hall , 2005/06/22 at 2:08 pm

    I’d always thought it was “splitting image”, which makes a certain kind of sense — two things are so similar it’s as if you’d taken it and sliced it in half producing two identical copies… (6,940 Google results, although some are about splitting images in Photoshop and the like,(

  2. 2

    Commentary by Jamie Spencer , 2005/06/22 at 2:12 pm

    I was told by the (very Southern) minister at my church (he’s now the Bishop of South Carolina (Episcopal) that “spittin’ image” actually derives from a theological source–spirit and image.” Hence, “that man is the very sirit and image” of Jesus or Paul or some saint–resemblance in both body and character. I had no reason to doubt his version until now!

  3. 3

    Commentary by Ben Zimmer , 2005/06/22 at 6:19 pm

    Both the _splitting image_ and _spirit and image_ explanations are considered and rejected in Horn’s American Speech article.

  4. 4

    Commentary by Team PSP , 2005/08/26 at 9:42 pm

    A fellow co-worker and I were debating which was correct (spittin’ image or splitting image) and also did a google search to find our answer. Although we found both used frequently, I can only conclude that many more people are just as confused as my poor co-worker. Best of luck to all of those looking for a straight answer!

  5. 5

    Commentary by Monado , 2005/12/05 at 5:59 pm

    I believe that “spitting image” is actually an ‘eggcorn,’ or sonic spelling, for “spitten image.” In that case, “spitten” is a euphemism for “ejeculated” and the phrase means “biological child of.” I read that it was used in the U.S., with the commentary that people would expand on it as, “He [the father] spat and he [a son] grew.” If one is gossipping, a convenient and less respectful term could be “byblow.”

    I don’t remember where I read it, but it might have been in something by William Safire.

    Of course, this meaning could be secondary to the ones suggested above, but to me it sounds plausible.

  6. 6

    Commentary by Nix , 2006/02/14 at 6:49 pm

    Could it be that spit was used on some sort of hard surface and looked into as a mirror?

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