Spitting Image

By Maeve Maddox

ELVIS’ SECRET SON FOUND:
Handsome 32-year-old is the spitting image of The King

That’s to say, the young man looks exactly like Elvis.

The underlying image is that of a man spitting out a child in his own likeness, rather like Cadmus sowing the dragon’s teeth from which sprang full-grown men.

NOTE: Some fastidious folk etymologists have tried to elevate the expression from the realm of expectoration by suggesting that “spit and image” derives from the phrase “spirit and image.” Not likely.

The Online Etymology Dictionary gives 1602 as a date for spit used with the meaning “the very likeness.”

The Phrase Finder cites this 1689 reference from George Farquhar’s play Love and a Bottle:

Poor child! he’s as like his own dadda as if he were spit out of his mouth.

The expression has appeared in various forms:

the spit
A daughter,..the very spit of the old captain. (1825)

the spit and fetch
He would be the very spit and fetch of Queen Cleopatra. (1859)

the spit an’ image
She’s like the poor lady that’s dead and gone, the spit an’ image she is. (1895)

the dead spit
I’ll chance you having another ring..the dead spit of mine. (1901)

the spitten image
He looked the spitten picture of my ould father. (1887)

the spittin’ image
He’s jes’ like his pa, the very spittin’ image of him! (1901)

the spitting image
In another twenty years..she would be her mother’s spitting image. (1929)

the spit-image
My husband saw a man that was the spit-image of King no further away than Jackson. (1949)

The OED gives an example of Westmoreland dialect in which “splittin’ image” is used instead of “spittin’ image”. A possible explanation is given by D. Hartley in Made in England (1939):

Evenness and symmetry are got by pairing the two split halves of the same tree, or branch. (Hence the country saying: he’s the ‘splitting image’an exact likeness.)

Spitting image is definitely the winning version. Most modern speakers would hear “splitting image” as a malapropism.

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5 Responses to “Spitting Image”

  • Rod

    I have a question
    Is spitting image used like take after I mean should they be blood kin or it can be used like doppelganger?

  • Maeve

    @Rod,
    The expression derives from a family relationship and is usually used in that context, but the expression can also be used to mean “the very image of.” It can even be used of inanimate objects, as in the OED example:

    I’ll chance you having another ring..the dead spit of mine.

  • naomi hamm

    I would prefer it this way: “Son of Elvis Presley, has been discovered at the ripe age of 27 living in Miami (Dade County) Florida and its stated he could pass as his dad’s twin.

    Dwayne Hilton, named after his mamma was found to be the real true and only son of singer Elvis whom died during the 70s, after tremedous success as a rock and roller.

    How can he tell that he is the real son of Elvis Presley. His DNA swipe was a perfect match to the mid and late 1950s aging crooner, who was always called the King.

    The Kings son reigns supreme. Of course this is not fact, but I have worked it this way because I prefer it the most.

    Spittin Image has been overused and overworked. I’d rather make this my own. then a whole lot of others writers chosen words.
    thanks all and have a great weekend.

  • Peter

    There used to be a hilarious British TV series called Spitting Image: puppet versions of various politicians and TV personalities.

  • Andy Hess

    It is likely that “spitting image” derived from the ancient mythology in which the various Gods and Goddesses produced offspring from their mouths or spit them out. Thanks.

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