I am not asking about which usage is correct. I am looking for the origins of "spitting image".

Possible Duplicate:
Is it correct to say Person A is the “spitting image” or the “splitting image” of Person B?

I understand how to use the phrase but have never heard an explanation of how it came in modern usage.

I did perform a quick Google Search before submitting this question and found references to "spit and image". This didn't seem to answer my question as to what they mean when they say it.

  • Hi @dmcgill50! Can you edit your question to include your own research on this phrase's etymology? Feb 5, 2013 at 19:00
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    Made the update so that responders can see that I have actually performed the obligatory google search.
    – dmcgill50
    Feb 5, 2013 at 19:44
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    No idea why Google search fails, but SE search for once does not. Lesson learned: sometimes a quick Google search just isn't enough. Anyway. Your question has been answered on this very site, by a linguist, with 36 upvotes, and 21 thousand views.
    – RegDwigнt
    Feb 5, 2013 at 21:07
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    @dmcgill50: Kudos to you! I'd already upvoted your question before I answered here (deleted now, since I can't compete with the answer to the original). I too am accustomed to thinking a Google search will usually turn up any earlier instance of a question on ELU, so I stand by my upvote to you here. Even if it got closed, you did what you were supposed to do (which, quite frankly, is more than many others bother with! :) Feb 5, 2013 at 22:55
  • @RegDwighт I definitely can appreciate that you think this is a duplicate question. However, his question asks which phrase is correct whereas mine is looking for the origin of only one phrase, that being "spitting image". From reading all the responses and linked references, it looks like the original reference was "spit and image" no matter the crudeness, it does appear to be accurate. I appreciate you unflagging for being a duplicate. Thanks!
    – dmcgill50
    Feb 6, 2013 at 16:36

4 Answers 4


My understanding is that it actually comes from the phrase "spirit and image" and spitting has nothing to do with it.

You can say that a child is the spirit and image of his grandfather. That actually makes sense.

However, in this article (easily found, if you had Googled the subject), Horn disagrees, saying it is a derivative of "spitten image"

"Spitten image," he says, refers to "a likeness that was literally spit out, but where figuratively the 'spit' in question involved a rather different bodily fluid."

Personally, I consider that a bit revolting, and distracts from the pleasant imagery that can be accomplished with language. I'd rather have a child that has captured my spirit!

  • I'd always wondered about that expression also and find this definition intriguing - can you cite a source for it and maybe some history for the OP? Feb 5, 2013 at 19:03
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    As it turns out, the jury says it's more likely derived from "spit and image". Like I already said, that's not a very pleasant picture, if you ask me. Feb 5, 2013 at 19:12
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    This looks like the frontrunner...I will let the question set for a day or two and see what we get but, it looks like @Jim found THE authority on the topic, Mr. Laurence Horn.
    – dmcgill50
    Feb 5, 2013 at 19:47
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    Here is an 1893 reference that says it's etymologically "spirit and image". Feb 5, 2013 at 20:39
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    @dmcgill50: I couldn't find a publicly accessible copy of Horn's 25-page Spitten Image: Etymythology and Fluid Dynamics, but I did find his Etymythology and Taboo (PDF which includes a nine-page "Case study: the “spittin’ image”" linking it to spit and semen.
    – Hugo
    Feb 6, 2013 at 8:12


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 OED says spitting image (1901) it's 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).


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.

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.

Those references are:

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

  • Following a link to the cooking dialogue on StackExchange I found this etymology of 'spit' meaning a roasting rod: Middle English, from Old English spitu; akin to Old High German spiz spit, spizzi pointed from merriam-webster.com/dictionary/spit Is it not possible that 'spitting image' comes from this originally (it seems to date from at least the 16th century) in the sense of a detailed and accurate image created using a sharp pointed tool? If this is the case it could derive from masonry and sculpting in contrast to less accurate carving produced using a chisel
    – BoldBen
    Sep 11, 2016 at 15:43

From Eric Partridge's A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English (Fifth Edition, 1961):

"spit ; gen. the very or, in C. 20, the dead spit of: A speaking likeness (of): 1825 (O.E.D.) coll. >, ca. 1890 S.E.—but still rather familiar. Mayhew, 1851, 'the very spit of the one I had for years; it's a real portrait'. Ex such forms as 'As like an urchin, as if they had been spit out of the mouths of them,' Breton 1602, and 'He's e'en as like thee as th' had'st spit him,' Cotton."

Partridge's examples suggest that the phrase "spitting image" emerged from "spit" in the sense of expectoration, and not from popular confusion with "split."

  • And here is a reference from 1828. "Thou'rt truly the spit of the old boy". Feb 5, 2013 at 22:01

The comparison comes from the phrase like him as if he had spit him out of his mouth.

The reference from Chambers is here.

  • I see nothing in your link saying this, and it's not in my paper copy, so I don't believe it. Feb 5, 2013 at 19:42
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    I see the reference that he put in italics...please read a little closer...you should also undo your downvote.
    – dmcgill50
    Feb 5, 2013 at 19:51
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    @FumbleFingers: I have it in my 11th Ed. Chambers under spit (1).
    – Bravo
    Feb 5, 2013 at 19:54
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    @FumbleFingers: And my -1 vote? :P
    – Bravo
    Feb 5, 2013 at 22:04
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    @Hugo: Sorry - I hadn't realised another answer had been added here, when I made that last comment. Unlike the others here, your answer does "add" somewhat to the answers on the original. So it was a good idea for you to copy your answer across there, and I'm happy to have been the first to upvote it! Feb 5, 2013 at 22:47

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