Splitting vs. spitting image

18 Feb
The snowy owl( Bubo scandiacus) is common acro...

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I’ve just finished ‘ Room’, the novel by Emma Donohue.  It’s definitely one of the best books I’ve read in a while – and had me in tears within 50 pages of starting it.

The book’s narrated by a five-year old boy, and in it, he uses the phrase that someone “is the spit” of him, meaning they looked identical.

I remember as a child of about ten or so getting roundly told off by the Snowy Owl at my Brownies (who was a bit of a cow, to be fair) for describing someone as a ‘spitting image’.  She was very insistent that the correct phrase was ‘splitting image’ – which, to give her credit, makes a bit more sense when you think about it.

I’d always thought that people starting using ‘spitting image’ or the noun ‘to be the spit of’ in the 1980s, based on the British satirical puppet show, Spitting Image, that was popular at the time.  I also thought it was a British-only usage, so was surprised to see it crop up in a book set in America (albeit by an Irish writer).

But as it turns out, the only bit that I was right about was that ‘spitting image’ is indeed appears to be a corruption of ‘splitting image’.  Interestingly, the OED has a written record of the corruption at least two years before the original!

The OED records the first written usage of ‘splitting image’ 1880 – much later than I’d imagined.  It’s quoted in a book of Westmorland dialects, part of Cumbria, a district in north-west England.

However, the first corruption is recorded in 1878, again in a (different) book related to dialects from Cumbria – “Spitten picter” – a strong likeness.   ‘Spitting image’ is also first recorded in 1901 – He’s jes’ like his pa—the very spittin’ image of him!  from the delightfully-named Mrs. Wiggs of Cabbage Patch

The OED doesn’t yet record uses of the phrase ‘to be the spit of’, suggesting it hasn’t reached a sufficient critical mass of usage (or else just not the ears of the OED editors!).  Surely it’s now common enough to be considered for future inclusion – I’ll start a campaign now.


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