LINGUIST List 11.2516

Tue Nov 21 2000

Sum: Cross-Linguistic "Spitten Image"

Editor for this issue: Marie Klopfenstein <>


  1. Laurence Horn, Cross-linguistic spitten image

Message 1: Cross-linguistic spitten image

Date: Sun, 19 Nov 2000 13:40:47 +0800
From: Laurence Horn <>
Subject: Cross-linguistic spitten image

On Friday, November 10, I posted this query on Linguist List 11.2434:

I am trying to compile an inventory of equivalents of the French
expression "C'est X tout crachE", corresponding to the English
expression variously rendered as the "spittin' image", "spitting
image", "spit and image", or "spit an' image". (Some of you will
recall that I argued several years ago in this forum for an analysis
along the lines of "spitten image", with the dialectal past
participle functioning as pre-nominal adjective, and I'm hoping to
invoke these cross-linguistic correspondences to support this view.)
So far, I have obtained (from various sources):

(French) C'est (le portrait de) son p`ere tout crachE.
(German) Er sieht seinem Vater aenlich wie ge[s]puckt. [with typo corrected=
(Dutch) Hij is zihn vader gespogen.
(Greek) O Janis ine ftystos o pateras tou.

- all involving a reference to someone being literally the "spitten
image" of his father. What I'm wondering is how many more such
counterparts there are out there, and especially whether there are
any such expressions in NON-Indo-European languages...
- ----------
Let me start by gratefully acknowledging all those who wrote in response:

Pier Marco Bertinetto
Stefano Bertolo
Brian O Curnain
Mirjana N. Dedaic
Jan Engh
Chiara Frigeni
Ralf Grosserhode
Gunnar Hrafn
Irena Kolbas
Larry [no last name given]
Arne Lindstad
Anke Luedeling
Bruno Oliveira Maroneze
Jose-Luis Mendivil
Becky Molloy
Viola Miglio
Jasna Novak
Don Reindl
Sukriye Ruhi
Ondrej Roldan
Marina Santini
Xulio Sousa
Wim Vandenbussche

To summarize the results, it appears that bodily-fluid metaphors and 
similes for likeness between child and parent (often between child 
and father in particular) are widely distributed in Indo-European, 
but not well attested outside IE. (A couple of IE languages, 
including Spanish and Czech, appear to lack any bodily-fluid metaphor 
for similarity, although the Czech version--lit., 'as if he had 
fallen out of his eye'--isn't too distant.) Some examples are given 
here; to save space, I won't include here the morph-by-morph glosses 
for which I am nonetheless extremely grateful.

On je plunuti otac.
'He is [his] spitten father'

=46LEMISH (besides the general Dutch expression based on'gespogen' above)
Hij is zijn vader gebraakt en gespogen
'He is his father thrown up and spitten'

E' cuspido a seu pai
'He is spitten to his father'

Hann er eins og sny'ttur u't u'r nefinu a' honum foeDur. 
[V' for accented vowels; OE for umlauted vowel, D for dental fricative]
'He is as if blown out of the nose of his father'

IRISH [V' used for accented long vowels in transcription]:
Ta' se' cosu'il lena athair, mar a chaithfeadh se' amach as a bhe'al e'.
'He is like his father, as he would throw (i.e. spit) him out of his mouth.'

E' suo padre sputato; E sputato a suo padre.
'He is his father spit (out)' =3D he is the spittin' image of his father

Han er som snytt ut av nesa pA far sin. (A =3D a with circle diacritic)
'He is as if sneezed out of the nose of his father'

Ele e' a cara cuspida e escarrada do pai.
'He is the face spitted and coughed up of [his] father'
(where "escarrar" can be also be glossed as 'spit', but seems to allude
specifically to mucus, sputum, or blood hacked up by a deep cough)

The usual bodily fluid appears to be spit/sputum, but in some cases 
the child is depicted as mucus, snot, or vomit expelled from 
(typically) the father. As noted, not much from non-IE languages:

HIk de-mis, burnundan dUs,-mUs,. 
(post-consonantal comma for cedilla, U for umlauted u,
I for undotted, i.e. back, i)
[father] hiccoughed/blew his nose, [child] dropped from his nose
('mother' may also be understood here rather than 'father', and there's
some variation on whether the onomatopoeic "hIk" is understood to refer to
hiccupping or nose-blowing)

hu dome le-aba shelo, shtei tipot mayim
'He looks like his father, two drops of water' [fluids, but no 
bodily fluids involved]

A couple of other random comments:

1) Most German respondents are unfamiliar with the German expression 
I cited above (which was taken from a 1930 article published in 
American Speech), although a couple of local German speakers from the 
Swabian area among our graduate students are at least passively 
familiar with it, and I did find it used in one web site,, which describes 
someone looking as much like the late King of Spain as if he had been 
spitten [gespuckt] from him. The corresponding expression is more 
robust in Dutch/Flemish, in a couple of different forms.

2) The Croatian and Italian versions, both involving the adjectival 
past participle of the verb for 'spit', appear to be quite robust.

3) There's a range of variation in the degree to which speakers are 
conscious of an allusion to genetic transmission and issues of 
paternity, which I would argue to underlie all of these expressions 
and cross-modal comparison of bodily fluids. In this respect, the 
reference in the Norwegian and Icelandic expressions to a son being 
as much like his father as if he'd been sneezed out of his nose is 
especially suggestive. (Special thanks here to Jan Engh, who cites 
the wonderful sentence "Han var=8Asom snytt av dirigentpinnen til sin 
far hva fakter og minespill angikk", uttered by the leader of the 
local students' orchestra to describe the young son of the conductor 
as looking and acting as though he'd been blown out of his father's 

4) Just as many writers on the [spItn] image, including some of the 
respondents to my query, have suggested that the real source is the 
more delicate (but otherwise unattested) "spirit and image", Bruno 
Oliveira Maroneze notes that Brazilians often insist that their 
earthy expression,
"Ele e' a cara cuspida e escarrada do pai", is really a corruption of 
the more delicate "Ele e' a cara esculpida em Carrara do pai" (...the 
face scupted in Carrara...) or "Ele e' a cara esculpida e entalhada 
do pai" (...sculpted and carved...), but as with the English "spirit 
and image", this more delicate source appears to be a 
wishfully-thought folk etymology.

Anyway, thanks to all for reinforcing my already firmly held belief 
that Linguist List is a unique resource for this sort of 
cross-linguistic lexicographic detective work. Anybody attending the 
LSA this January in Washington is invited to drop in at the American 
Dialect Society meeting to hear me talk about the spitten image--same 
hotel, see your Meeting Handbook for details of time and place.

Larry Horn <> 
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