I know that when somebody says a son is the spitting image of his father, it probably means that the son looks and acts just like the father. Of course, sometimes people use the phrase only for looks while at other times, people use the phrase only for mannerism.
I don’t remember the cartoon, but I know what I saw was from a cartoon. The father literally spit and then his son appeared and was an exact smaller copy of him in looks and mannerisms.
While that is a silly way to illustrate the phrase “spitting image,” I never considered the true origin of the phrase.
Some people think that the phrase was originally “splitting image.” This comes from using the other half of a piece of lumber to make what is essentially a mirror image of a wooden pattern for a product. If the final product isn’t exactly mirrored, it is at least symmetrical.
An example of this would be the two halves of a violin or a cello. The instruments are not symmetrical when spit in half so the front and back are separate. However, they are symmetrical when split so there is a right and a left side.
Dorothy Hartley explained this process in 1939 when she wrote Made in England. Her words were, “Evenness and symmetry are got by pairing the two split halves of the same tree, or branch. (Hence the country saying: he’s the ‘splitting image’ – an exact likeness.)”
While this theory is plausible, it is not the true origin. There are other phrases that include the word “spit” and “image” which are clearly not related to the word “split.” One of the other theories is that “spit” comes from the word “spirit,” but that is not true, either.
It turns out that the image I saw on the cartoon was correct. The idea of “spitten image” is that somebody (A) is so alike another person (B), that the first person (A) may have well come from the spit of the second person (B). In simpler terms, a son is so much like his father that it seems like the son came from the father’s spit.
This usage and meaning is recorded 1824.
Other languages also have their own versions of the phrase. France has “C’est le portrait craché de son père” which means “He’s the spitting portrait of his father.” Norwegian has “som snytt ut av nesen paa” which means, “as blown out of the nose of.”
Martin, G. (n.d.). Spitting image. The meanings and origins of sayings and phrases | List of sayings | English sayings | Idiom definitions | Idiom examples | Idiom origins | List of idioms | Idiom dictionary | Meaning of idioms. Retrieved July 27, 2010, from http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/spitting-image.html