Ruthie reanalyzes, and so do lots of others

The 8/5 One Big Happy has Ruthie doing her best to make sense of the idiom the spitting image (of) as, roughly, ‘the person someone looks like when they spit’.

Behind this lies a whole chain of reanalyses, none of them due to Ruthie. Ultimately, sex is probably involved. (Oh, isn’t that always the way?)

The conventional story of spitting image is that it’s spittin’ image, from a reanalysis of spit an’ image, that is, spit and image, with the noun spit ‘likeness’.

This story of spittin’ image has been challenged by Larry Horn, in this remarkable article:

Laurence R. Horn, “Spitten image: Etymythology and fluid dynamics”, American Speech 79.1.33-58 (2004)

A wonderfully learnèd piece, also funny, and also the officially citable source for the concept of etymythology and that name for it. From p. 39:

there is a neglected dichotomy within the category of folk etymology, unmentioned by traditional or recent scholarship (e.g., Rundblad and Kronenfeld 2003) on the phenomenon. While standard examples of first-order or naive folk etymology involve a morphological domestication of an opaque and often foreign form (ros marinus ‘sea dew’ > rosemary), there is another process that I have referred to on the American Dialect Society e-mail list (ads-l) as etymythology. The human animal loves a good story and in particular cherishes a narrative embedding privileged knowledge. Etymythology is the lexical version of the urban legend, a fable — or more generously a piece of culturally based arcane wisdom — not transmitted by scholarly research but passed on by word of mouth (or computer). The locus classicus is the false acronym, representing the “real story” that “they” don’t want us to know about or spread.

Larry’s proposal for spittin’ image is boldly announced in his title: spittin’ < spitten, an old dialect PSP of spit: a spitten image is one that’s spit out. The picture — explicit in a series of cites from interviews in DARE —  is of a father spitting out a son in his image (“Looks like his daddy just spit him out”). Yes, it’s almost always fathers and sons (and similar imagery is found throughout Europe). So some association with ejaculation is pretty much inevitable.

One Response to “Ruthie reanalyzes, and so do lots of others”

  1. bebopple Says:

    finally – advanced linguistics

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