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:
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)
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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