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I understand that when trying to describe a person who has a resemblance to another, the common term is spitting image. As in:

Person A is a spitting image of Person B.

Here's my issue, I've recently heard some people saying splitting image as opposed to spitting image and upon thinking about it, splitting image makes more sense. That may be because I am unaware of the etymology of spitting image.

My thinking is that Person A looks so much like Person B, that they have appeared to "split" from the same person, hence splitting image. Wouldn't you agree?

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Worth mentioning: the political puppet show of the same name :-) –  PLL Jan 11 '11 at 19:15
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8 Answers

up vote 47 down vote accepted

To expand a little on Claudiu’s excellent answer, there seems to be an interesting progression/evolution here:

  • metaphor: “it’s like he was spat out of his father’s mouth” (1689).

  • metonymy: “he’s the very spit of his father” (1825) — when the metaphor is commonplace enough, it no longer gets spelled out in full.

  • idiom/cliché: “the spit and image of his father” (1859) — a particularly effective wording of the metonymy solidifies into a widely re-used phrase.

  • corruption: “the spitten image” (1878) — the original analysis of the phrase is lost.

  • reanalysis: “the spitting image” (1901) — this strange new word “spitten” gets replaced by something which is at least syntactically more comprehensible.

  • further reanalysis/eggcorning: “the splitting image” (1880(!?), 1939) — the phrase changes to something which is more semantically plausible — it’s easier to imagine ways that “splitting image” could have arisen than “spitting image”.

(NB: my examples are not quotations; these dates given are when each form seems to have arisen)

Huh: so in chasing up the dates of all these forms (in the OED), I got a surprise! It turns out that while “splitting image” comes in 1939, postdating “spitting image” as we’d expect, the form “splitten image” appears in 1880, in Specimens of Westmorland Dialect: “Soa t’kersmas up i’t’fells Et just be t’splitten image Ov a kersmas ’mang yersells.” This is only just after the first citation of “spitten” (1878, in “spitten picter”), and well before the first citation for “spitten image” (1901)!

Whats going on here? Written language tends to lag behind spoken language by quite a long time, so it could well be that actually in 1878 the progression had gone further than the cited sources go, and so “spitten” had been actually already been around for a while before getting reanalysed to “splitten” — and it just so happens that “splitten image” struck it lucky with an early dialect-collector and got recorded more promptly than most coinages do. Or perhaps it had gotten reanalysed at an earlier stage, “spit and image” → “split and image”, and then corrupted “split and” → “splitten” in parallel with the “spit” forms? Or maybe even the “splitting image” proponents we laughed at were right all along — the Westmorland folk coined this form entirely separately, while splitting their firewood for Christmas up in the fells?

My guess is that it’s something like the first option: “splitten” does indeed follow “spitten”, and it’s just chance that it got recorded remarkably early. But this isn’t a terribly authoritative guess… anyone better-educated in historical linguistics have any thoughts on this?

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wow, awesome answer. wonder how many other idioms follow this evolution. –  Claudiu Jan 11 '11 at 23:16
    
Excellent answer, giving such an interesting insight on how an idiom can evolve. If only more answers could be of this calibre (beginning by mine.) –  Eldroß Jan 12 '11 at 10:21
    
There's probably a first step too, where spit is a metaphor for semen. See Laurence Horn's comments here, and in his papers linked from my answer. –  Hugo Feb 6 '13 at 8:17
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This article addresses your question. To summarize: the first phrase seemed to be "spit and image" or "Poor child! he's as like his own dadda as if he were spit out of his mouth." There are also parallels with spit in other languages.

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Very nice article! One thing worth mentioning: they don’t cite it as such, but it looks like they got their dates/quotations from the OED, so it should be pretty reliable. –  PLL Jan 11 '11 at 18:40
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Spitting image is correct, it is idiomatic to distance from another, or proximity.

spitting:

in/within spitting distance also in/within striking distance

very close to something or someone (often + of ) The great thing about the house is that it's within spitting distance of the sea. The move to Ascot put us within striking distance of London.

Cambridge Idioms Dictionary, 2nd ed. Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2006

or from spit:

be the spitting image of somebody

to look very much the same as someone else He's the spitting image of his father.

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Summary

Spitting image is the most usual phrase.

Spitting image and related phrases (e.g. "he's the [very] spit[ting] [image/picture]") are 19th century. It appears it did come from the word spit rather than split.

Its roots may be found in the 17th century, in

He resembled him in euerie part; he was as like him as if he had beene spit out of his mouth.

This is found in a 1611 French-English dictionary with a similar French translation. Perhaps the English phrase was translated from the French, or perhaps the other way round, or perhaps both phrases were current in each language. The English is also found in 1605.

For a full blow-by-blow history, I recommend reading the nine-page "Case study: the “spittin’ image”" in Etymythology and Taboo by Laurence R. Horn (PDF) linking spitting image to spit and semen.

OED

The OED says spitting image (1901) is an alteration of spitten (image, picture) (1878). This in turn is a corruption of spit and (image, picture, fetch) (1859). The very spit of is 1825.

Curiously, splitting image (or splitten image) is recorded later (1880).

Antedating

spitting image (OED 1901)

I found an antedating for spitting image from Hall Caine's A Son of Hagar, volume 2 (first published 1886, this edition 1887):

' Blest if you don't look the spitting image of a friend of mine — 'boutn the eyes, I mean — red and swelled up and such.

spitten (OED 1878)

The Dialect of Cumberland (1873) by Robert Ferguson suggests it is really from spit:

SPITTEN-PICKTER. sb. " Strong likeness. Yon barn's his varra spitten-picter." — Dick. "That barn's as like his fadder as an he'd been spit out of his mouth." — Crav. The expression was used in Early Eng. "He was as like him as if he had been spit out of his mouth." — Cotg.

The first references is:

  • Dick.: A Glossary of Words and Phrases Pertaining to the Dialect of Cumberland (1859) by William Dickinson

spit and image (OED 1859)

The Hopkins Family: or, English Immigrants and Itinerant Players (1847) by Horatio Newton Moore:

"Oh, it's the very spit and image of my own baby ! as like my little baby as two peas!"

very spit (OED 1825)

Literary Gazette and Journal of Belles Lettres, Arts, Sciences, &c. (1821), in a story: "Wine and Walnuts; or, After-Dinner Chit-Chat. By a Cockney Greybeard", aka Ephraim Hardcastle:

" is not that the very spit of old More,"

Precendents

Those other Dialect of Cumberland references are:

  • Crav.: The Dialect of Craven (1828) "By A Native of Craven"
  • Cotg.: A Dictionary of the French and English Tongues (1623) by Randle Cotgrave

Here's The Dialect of Craven: In the West-Riding of the County of York (1828):

SPIT, That barn's as like his fadder, as an he'd been spit out of his mouth," i. e. he very much resembles him. " C' estoit luy tout craché ;" he resembled him in every part, he was as like him, as if he had been spit out of his mouth. Cotgrave. Non tarn ovum ovo simile.

The Latin "Non tarn ovum ovo simile" can be more directly translated as "as like as one egg to another".

Here's Randle Cotgrave's A Dictionary of the French and English Tongues (this one 1611):

Craché: m.ée: f. Spet, or spatled out; spattered, bespawled.

C' estoit luy tout craché ; He resembled him in euerie part; he was as like him as if he had beene spit out of his mouth.

Finally, via Laurence Horn, a 1602 and 1605:

  1. two girles . . ., the one is like an Owle, the other as like an Urchin, as if they had beene SPITTE out of the mouthes of them. [Breton 1602, 5; cited in Binns 1898]

  2. Now look I as like the Dutchman as if I were SPIT out of his mouth. [Houghton 1605, act 4, sc. 1; cited in Stevenson 1948]

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I've sent the antedatings OED. –  Hugo Feb 6 '13 at 9:49
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It's "spitting image". This problem seems to me to be caused by people using idioms they've never read. For example, I encounter people who use, "for all intensive purposes," when what they clearly mean is "for all intents and purposes."

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I think people hear somebody say a phrase and then they repeat what they think they heard with what seems to make sense (in their mind) not that any of the other phrases are so wrong but that just isn't what they started as. In my humble opinion. –  user26434 Sep 23 '12 at 20:38
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"Splitting image" does make more sense - but the expression is "spitting image". But the expression may be in the process of a shift to a more intuitive form.

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It's my understanding that the etymology of the phrase "spitting image" is that it's a corruption of "spirit and image."

To say someone is "the spirit and image of his father" is to imply that the subject looks like, and shares some deeper traits with, his father.

Over time this became "spittin' image" (probably abetted by illiteracy, which caused much more emphasis to be on turns of phrase learned by hearing--or mis-hearing--them from others). My own great-grandmother said "spirt'n' image" (pronounced slightly different from "spurtin' image") in the same context, which I take to be a transitional form that was preserved in the extremely rural mountains where she grew up.

edited to add: I see some references that suggest that this is not a likely etymology so I can only go with my own anecdotal evidence for support, I guess.

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Actually, this 1893 reference thinks that your etymology is correct. –  Peter Shor Feb 5 '13 at 20:37
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It's "spitting image" in my experience. The OED lists "Splitting image" as being used in the 19th C, which I had never heard of before.

I always assumed that it was a reference to Athena being spit from the mouth of Zeus, and hence the usage "Spit from his father's mouth". The usage is, as far as I know, also common amongst the Italians in the same figurative sense.

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protected by RegDwigнt Sep 23 '12 at 20:42

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