Spitting image

I have very few direct memories of my maternal grandfather. I was only 2 years old when he died. Although I know lots and lots of stories about him, memories that come from my own direct experience are, at best, hazy. What I can remember is an incident when he was sitting in an overstuffed chair and he was laughing. I was told when I was growing up that he was delighted by the way I walked when I was a toddler. Apparently I would lean forward to the point of being off balance and then pump my feet to get the lower half of my body to catch up. I couldn’t stop without falling forward for a while.

On the other hand, I have lots of memories of my paternal grandfather who lived until I was a college student. My earliest memories of him include “helping” with a carpentry project, when, in order to distract me from the work he was trying to accomplish, he pounded a series of nails into a 2x4 and taught me to pull them with a claw hammer. My “job” then was to straighten the nails and put them into a nail apron. Apparently it kept me distracted for quite a while.

When I was still quite young, I remember one of my uncles telling me that I was the “spitting image” of Pop - the name my mother and her sisters used for their father. I was a bit amazed at the comment - mostly because I didn’t know what it meant. First of all, I couldn’t quite imagine my mother’s father spitting. Theirs was a disciplined Methodist household, and there was no tobacco use, so my Pop wouldn’t have been a man to spit like the ranchers and others I knew who would pinch a wad of tobacco into their mouths. I probably was a bit enamored with my own ability to spit at the time. Although he would never chew tobacco, it didn’t seem too far fetched that my other grandfather might spit from time to time, but only when he was outdoors. I had been given that rule enough times that I was pretty sure it applied to everyone in our family.

Later, when I became more aware of appearances, I pondered the long-ago comment from another perspective. I don’t think that I ever looked much like my maternal grandfather when it comes to appearances. I do bear quite a bit of physical resemblance to my father, and I think a bit to my paternal grandfather, but less so to my mother’s father. I hope that the comment was a bit informed by attitude and personality. Perhaps I carry a bit of my grandfather’s tenacity and seriousness and attitude toward life.

The term “spitting image” is a colloquialism that is hundreds of years old. Like beat the band, piece of cake, or knock on wood, its exact origins have probably been lost, but there are plenty of theories about the term’s beginning.

I’ve read that the original term might have been “spit and image” altered by frequent use and a touch of linguistic laziness.

I’ve also heard that some linguists believe that the original term was “splitting image,” as though a person had been split into two mirror images.

The third explanation for the term that I’ve encountered is that it derived from melding “spirit and image,” as in “he’s the very spirit and image of his father.”

The first explanation, “spit and image,” probably has the most support among etymologists. Laurence Horn, professor of linguistics at Yale University, points out that “spitten” is the dialectical past participle of spit.” It is a word that is rarely used in contemporary speech, but it is a real word nonetheless despite the fact that the spell checker on my word processor doesn’t know it. Horn is probably technically correct on the origins of the term.

However, Horn has another term that inspires me. He has coined the term “Etymythology.” It is an offshoot of etymology: “The invention of lexical urban legends that explains various expressions in the language without any actual historical support for them.”

Using Horn’s term, I prefer the etymythological story of spitting image deriving from spirit and image. I like to think that I have a bit of the spirit of my maternal grandfather in me.

Whether or not I have his spirit, I do have his bible. The leather-bound “International” version book lives in its own cedar box along with a card from his candidacy for district judge, a position that he won. He also served terms in the Montana Senate. The bible itself is slightly larger than my palm and has black and white illustrations, some of artwork and others are actual photographs of landscapes, people and animals of the Middle East. The binding of the book is secure and it shows the evidence that although it was used, it was always handled with respect and care and that it was returned to its cedar box when it wasn’t being read.

I have crystal clear memories of my own father reading from that Bible on Christmas Eve as our family recalled the Christmas Story gathered around the piano in our living room. The Bible used to live in the bookcase above the piano. I admired the varnished wooden box that made the volume stand out from all of the other books on the shelf.

I, of course, have lots of other bibles, and I don’t use Pop’s bible for daily reading or for study work. I’ve looked at it many times, but for the most part I use different Bibles for my day-to-day spiritual disciplines. I get it out when I want to think of my mother and grandparents. It is a family reminder.

Now that I’m a grandfather myself and have the perspective of time, I really hope that I can reflect some of Pop’s spirit in such a way that it might be evident in the lives of my grandchildren. I can recognize qualities and traits of my forebears in the children of our son.

The image may or may not be spitting. But it is an image.

Copyright (c) 2016 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!