Jewish World Review August 5, 2004 / 18 Menachem-Av, 5764
Editors of Merriam-Webster's Collegiate
'Spitting image'; 'eclectic'; 'spendthrift'
When I was little, everyone told me I was the spitting image of my dad. It used to drive me nuts, but now, years later, I'm more interested in where the expression "spitting image" comes from. Can you help?
E.B., Pittsburgh, Pa.
The original phrase is "spit and image," meaning, as the present phrase does, "a person strikingly like another person." The phrase developed from a use of the noun "spit" to mean "a perfect likeness." This sense of "spit," first recorded in 1825, still occurs in British English but has fallen into disuse in the United States. It apparently developed from the familiar verb "spit" by way of a once popular saying that a son with a great resemblance to his father looked as much like him as if he had been spit out of his mouth. (Why being spit out of your father's mouth would make you look like him is a question we can't answer.)
Not everyone accepts the above explanation. Some have claimed that the phrase is actually a corruption of the phrase "spirit and image," pronounced by Southern speakers in such a way that "spirit" came eventually to be understood as "spit." It may be that some such process had an influence in the ultimate development of the phrase, but lack of evidence makes it impossible to say that for certain.
"Spitting image" was first recorded in 1901. Other variants, now extremely rare, are "spitten image" and "splitting image." For a time, "spitting image" was commonly cited as an error, but it has long since established itself as a standard, if somewhat informal, phrase.
The word "eclectic" describes unusual combinations of things or interesting and unpredictable choices. Is there an interesting story behind the word itself?
J.S., Gainesville, Fla.
Before people started using "eclectic" in contexts like "an eclectic decorating style" or "eclectic taste in reading materials," the word referred to ancient philosophers who did not adhere to any one school of thought. These philosophers selected certain doctrines from various schools and rejected others. Given that, it is not surprising that "eclectic" comes from the ancient Greek "eklektikos," which in turn traces to "eklegein," meaning "to select." "Eklegein" has its origins in "ex-," meaning "out," and "legein," meaning "to gather." "Legein" also means "to say, speak" and is at the root of an eclectic mix of "eclectic" relatives. Meaning "to gather" it figures in the ancestry of "anthology," "catalog," "horology," and "legend." In its "to say, speak" sense we find "legein" at the root of "dialogue," "dyslexia," "epilogue," "prologue," "homologous," and "lexicon."
Whenever I see the word "spendthrift" I have to stop and think about what it means. To me, it seems like a spendthrift should be someone who spends a little, not someone who spends a lot or carelessly. Isn't the "thrift" in "spendthrift" the same as the "thrift" in "thrift store"?
C.J., Tempe, Ariz.
Yes, the "thrift" in "spendthrift" and the "thrift" in "thrift store" are one and the same word, but the relevant sense of "thrift" differs between the two terms. We can trace this noun back to the 13th century, when it was first used in Middle English. It derives from an Old Norse word meaning "prosperity," which came from the verb "thrifask," meaning "to thrive." Although the usual meaning of "thrift" is now "careful management of money," in its older uses the word has had meanings like "healthy and vigorous growth" and "savings accumulated through frugality" or "acquired or hoarded wealth." The connection between these senses is the idea that in order to prosper or thrive you must manage your money carefully and accumulate wealth by saving. A "spendthrift," then, is someone who spends his or her thrift - that is, who spends money that should be saved.
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