Spit, Sneeze, and Other Origins

Dear Matthew Alice:

Where the heck did the expression "spitting image" come from?

-- Wendell, San Diego


Where did the expression "nothing to sneeze at" come from? It obviously means something important but makes absolutely no sense.

-- Bonnie, the net

Hello, Matthew Alice!

Where did the expression "railroaded" come from?

-- Don, the net

This time we got smart and posted several elves outside the word nerds' office window so they couldn't scram when they heard us coming. As it turns out, they took the "railroaded" question, made a paper airplane out of it, and chucked it over the elves' heads, so we don't have a real answer for that one. But we'll answer it anyway, natch.

The ordinary noun "railroad" has been around since the late 1700s. Came to the U.S. that way, while the Brits reverted to "railway." So our first guess is the term is American, not British. "Railroaded," the verb, appeared in print in the 1880s, a time when railroads played a big part in people's personal and business lives. It first meant to try a defendant in a rigged court with a quick and dirty trial that leads directly to jail. So with no help from the word nerds, we figure it came from the idea of some poor guy being put on a train, having no control over his destination. We can imagine some colorful newspaper reporter coining the phrase, or having it come from a popular novel of the time, or even out of the courts themselves. Hey, this word-origin business isn't so hard. Of course, anyone with real information is encouraged to jump in.

The word guys do believe they know where spitting image came from. For many centuries, there have been lots of spit-based phrases that mean "an exact likeness between two people." And apparently the spit in question is real spit. The two people are so alike, it's as if one person spit out the other. The original phrase was "spitten image" -- "spitten" is an old form of the past participle of "spit." It gradually migrated to "spitting image," which doesn't seem any more sensible than the original. See? Ask the experts, you get junk like that. The elves make up stuff, and you get a lively treatise on Victorian sociology and jurisprudence. Which would you really rather read?

At least with "nothing to sneeze at" we've got a good plot, goofy characters, and an explanation that we can swallow. Or inhale, as the case may be. The original phrase was "not to be sneezed at," meaning something that is significant, important. So get in the wayback machine and head for 17th-century England. Sneezing is a fad, said to clear the brain and make a person more alert. Rather than wait around for nature to generate a sneeze, wouldn't it be great if we could sneeze at will and always be at the top of our game? Enter snuff: tobacco, herbs, or a blend of the two. A pinch in the nose and you're one sneeze closer to brilliance. This became a status symbol, of course, since the proles were all scrabbling around trying to feed their kids while the gentry hung out in the solarium blowing their noses. Sneezing at will was all the rage in men's clubs and with after-dinner brandy. But a harmless fad turned ugly when at these gatherings people started huffing snuff and sneezing as a sign of contempt. What better way to say, "You fool, I won't listen to this nonsense anymore" than to interrupt the speaker with a loud sneeze. I guess the fool's defense was, "Well, my point is not to be sneezed at."

I have to admit, this story sounds like one of those "folk etymologies" I'm always raving on about -- a story that's made up after the fact that is fun, interesting, logical, but complete bunk. But in this case, some very respected word-history scholars buy the explanation, so we will too.

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