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I am researching the idiomatic expression “spit bath,” which is common in the U.S.A. and mean bathing the entire body with a basin and washcloth instead of a shower or tub. There are many other idioms that are synonymous: “wash up,” “basin bath,” “sponge bath, ” whores bath,” “PTA bath,” and “sink bath.” But “spit bath” intrigued me because there was no apparent explanation for combing saliva with bathing. True, the most contemporary use of the idiom denotes the practice of a mother dabbing her handkerchief on her tongue and scrubbing a child’s face, but that is not prevalent meaning before 1950.

The idiom is not on the online OED or the DAR. I did google searches and searched NewspaperArchive and Newpaper.com for the expression from 1800 forward and found the term often associated with seafarers. The only news story that offered a connection of spit to bath was from 1860:

Our informant, a war-worn veteran in the naval service, whose post of duty is at the wheel, near to the cabin of the great Kamig—tells us that those learned pundits take diurnally what he in his quaint language termed a ‘spit bath,’ and which he thus described: —After denuding themselves of their too scanty apparel, an attendant, filling his mouth with water, ejects it therefrom upon the naked torso of his master; and, after repeating the same several times, he applies friction to the epidermis by means of a coarse towel. Thus refreshed, they commence the duties of the day…

“The Voyage of the Steamer Niagra, Our Naval Correspondence,” New York, New York · October 06, 1860, Newspaper.Com.

I would appreciate any additional sources and comments.

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    spit is not about saliva. It is about the action of spitting the water out of the mouth onto the man's torso as given in the explanation. It's pretty clear...
    – Lambie
    Commented Apr 25, 2023 at 14:43
  • It's a joke of sorts. The amount of water contained in a "spit" is about the smallest amount of water that might be, say, dabbled onto a wash rag and used to wipe parts of the body.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Apr 25, 2023 at 14:56

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The expression can be found in a few online sources, for instance.

Spit bath:

A quick wash of oneself, usually with a wet cloth , when there is very little time and/or water .

(Wiktionary)

The idea is not so much that of washing yourself with saliva but with a very small quantity of water (a spit).

The meaning is quite intuitive and probably we should look for its earliest usages rather than its etymology.

Google Books shows usages from late 19th century with a sudden increase from the ‘80s. Sea travelers and sailors were often faced with the scarcity of water on board they could not “waste” just for washing themselves. The increase in usage in recent decades may be due to the scarcity of time (a quick wash) rather than water.

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    That spit in spit bath is supposed to convey the idea that the amount of water used is very small (but not that it has anything else to do with actual spit) is a reasonable hypothesis, but is there anything that can be said in support of it (other than that it seems plausible)? For example, is spit ever used in that way outside this phrase?
    – jsw29
    Commented Apr 25, 2023 at 16:35

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