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Matt Hackett of the Minnesota Wild spits out water during a game against the San Jose Sharks, Dec. 6, 2011 in San Jose, California. (Ezra Shaw/Ezra Shaw / Getty Images)
Matt Hackett of the Minnesota Wild spits out water during a game against the San Jose Sharks, Dec. 6, 2011 in San Jose, California. (Ezra Shaw/Ezra Shaw / Getty Images)

Warren Clements

Separating the spit and the image Add to ...

Someone who closely resembles another is said to be the spitting image of that person. It’s a strange expression, since there is no obvious link between resemblance and spit, unless one looks like an unpopular celebrity.

Those thoughts occurred after the phrase “spit and image” appeared in a recent movie review. Reader Chris Kelk, who noted that spitting image is the more common expression, added, “I have always thought the latter was a corruption of the former.”

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Indeed it was. In the 1820s, a fellow who looked remarkably like another was said to be the very spit (or the dead spit) of that person. The first printed use of “spit and” dates from 1859: “He would be the very spit and fetch of Queen Cleopatra.” The first use of “spit and image” dates from 1895: “She’s like the poor lady that’s dead and gone, the spit an’ image she is.”

The construction “spit and” was so common that, by the 1870s, it was being written in dialect form as spitten. It was Alice Caldwell Hegan Rice, in her 1901 book Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch, who first changed spitten to spittin’ to create the spitting image. “He’s jes’ like his pa – the very spittin’ image of him.”

This does not explain why spit, a word that had been around since the 1300s in the sense of saliva, came to mean facial resemblance. The answer may lie in an expression that appeared in the 1600s and remains in use today: a spit and a stride, meaning a very short distance – the length of a fellow’s spit and subsequent long step. The Sunday Independent in Ireland used it in a sentence in 2007: “All three are within a spit and a stride of each other at Wilyabrup, now hallowed ground.”

The connection between “a spit and a stride” and “spit and image” is not firm, but since the first means that a destination is close, and the second means that a resemblance is close, consider it a spit and link.

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There was a clatter at the Word Play mailbox and, in the spirit of the season, Word Play ran to see what was the matter.

A couple of readers argued with a recent column about Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, who referred to significant service cuts as “modest service adjustments.” The column treated this use of “adjustment” as a euphemism. The readers said it would be better termed a bald-faced lie.

As R.W. Holder writes in How Not to Say What You Mean, euphemism covers a lot of ground. Although it means a milder way of saying something, so much of the euphemism’s territory is politically sensitive that euphemism is “also the language of evasion, of hypocrisy, of prudery, and of deceit.”

Keith Ward wonders whether the column has tackled “words that have no basis in fact but are used to convey a meaning or feeling.” A while back, Word Play discussed the made-up word “suffonsified,” which, as a number of readers confirmed, had caught on as a loose synonym for sated and satisfied after a hearty meal. “My appetite has been sufficiently suffonsified.”

Ward recalls a word his mother used, “usually in fun, if someone was overbearing or interrupting a conversation.” She would say, “I think you are rather ‘inpernotanating’” – a word with a slight echo of impertinent. “I did a Google search for the word and found, ‘Did you mean: Internet dating?’ ” Definitely not, Ward says.

Finally, the word for situated diagonally is variously spelled cater-cornered, cater-corner and kitty-corner (related to the classical Latin quattuor, four). Reader Charles Crockford found a novel variation in a Dec. 7 advertising supplement to the Waterloo Region Record. “And kiddy corner to The Avon Theatre, The Christmas Store glistens with festive delights. ...”

Presumably the corners have rounded rather than sharp edges, for the kiddies’ sake.

 
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