Q&A: Spitting or splitting image?

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week we're spitting and splitting images…

Q: Hi AWC, my friend was telling me yesterday that I looked just like Elvis.

A: Which version?

Q: The alive one.

A: Okay. Don’t really see it, but sure.

Q: It may have been the sequinned jumpsuit I like to wear on Wednesdays. Anyway, she said I was the “splitting image” – and I meant to correct her, but then wasn't sure. It is “spitting” not “splitting” though, right?

A: You are correct. This is one of the only places (please take note, sportspeople) when spitting is completely acceptable.

Q: That’s what I thought. So is this a common mistake?

A: Yes, it is, because for a lot of people, to “split” an image makes far more sense here than to “spit” it.

Q: Hmmm, you’re right.

A: Of course, idioms like this don’t care about logic. And in this case, there is a weight of evidence to support how it originated as “spitting image”.

Q: Oh goodie. Do share.

A: Some say the origins go all the way back to Greek mythology and Athena being “spit from the mouth of Zeus”. Then we see 17th century metaphors suggest “it’s like he was spat out of his father’s mouth” and then later (1825) simplified to “he’s the very spit of his father”. By the 1850s, we had the idiom “the spit and image of his father”. This evolved to simply be “spitting image” – first recorded in 1901.

Q: And “splitting image”?

A: As you pointed out, it does seem to make more sense, so it’s no surprise that it was corrupted fairly early on – and “splitting image” started appearing from the 1930s – relating to two halves of a tree and the wood being split in two and mirroring each other.

Q: But it’s wrong.

A: As much as anything can be in this shifting sand we call the English language…

Q: But it IS wrong?

A: Ahem. Yes, it is wrong. The original idiom is “spitting”.

Q: And it has nothing to do with being within “spitting distance” of something?

A: Nope. That appears to have evolved separately.

Q: Okay.

A: One theory behind the use of the word “spit ” links it to the ejaculation of a genetic likeness – if you get what we’re saying.

Q: I can’t believe you just said ejaculation.

A: We did indeed. It’s a great word.

Q: ….

A: That was a rather pregnant pause.

Q: It was.

A: Just know that you will find people adamant that it’s “splitting” – because it makes more sense and has also been around for a long time. But if we’re splitting hairs in this lexical spat, we need to acknowledge that “spitting” was the first.

Q: Or you could just say that someone has a “doppelganger”…

A: You could. It’s a German word meaning “double goer” that has become common in English as a name for someone’s perfect likeness.

Q: Okay, enough with the spitting and the gangs. It’s time to double go now.

A: You’re right, let’s split.

If you have a grammar gripe or punctuation puzzle that you’d like our Q&A to explore, email it to us today!

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