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STYLE & CULTURE

To spit is human, to take aim is suspect

The venom of man is nothing new. It shows up in movies and idioms and works wonders at the Smithsonian.

January 13, 2006|Linton Weeks | Washington Post

WASHINGTON — You got your good spit: Soldiers use it to shine their shoes. Dentists encourage an after-rinse ptui. A handshake deal really means something if it's sealed with it.

And you got your bad spit: like the loogie allegedly hawked by Sean Taylor at Tampa Bay's Michael Pittman in Saturday's Redskins-Bucs game. Didn't do it, said Taylor; did too, said the ref, who was so appalled that he kicked Taylor out of the game. (Taylor was fined $17,000 this week by the National Football League.)

Moral of the story:

"Spitting your bodily fluids at someone is seen as more offensive than hitting them," Ross Coomber, a British sociologist who has written on the meaning of spit, told the Guardian back in 2003. "It's obviously a form of violence, very confrontational."

Hawking a loogie, spewing, spluttering or whatever you want to call it is very human. And inhuman. Getting slimed by someone else's effluence is downright humiliating.

Witnessed recently: In downtown Washington, an old bearded man suddenly goes berserk and runs into a young woman walking the opposite direction. A man in a swanky topcoat pushes the old man away from the stunned woman. The old man advances toward the guy in the topcoat and begins to spit in his face. The young man is so shaken he stumbles away from the scene -- disgusted, degraded, defeated.

We have seen that in sports and in life through the years -- human hatred reduced to spittle. It's our venom. Our viscous vitriol. Our mobile bile. There are countless instances of inhospitable spittle. In the early 1990s, an AIDS patient in Ohio spat his infected blood at a nurse and law officers. In the late 1990s, rapper Foxy Brown was accused of spitting at a couple of hotel employees. Last year a man spit in the face of Jane Fonda in Kansas City, Mo. In Florida, a guitarist for the band Rush allegedly spit in the face of a sheriff's deputy at a Fort Myers hotel.

We have also seen it in the movies. Gregory Peck gets a faceful of phlegm in "To Kill a Mockingbird." So does John Cassavetes in "Rosemary's Baby."

"I Spit on Your Grave" is a trashy classic.

Spit isn't always spite. Art conservators use saliva to clean some of our nation's greatest treasures. Spit, says Helen Ingalls of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, is the "dirty little secret" of the conservation world. "Saliva attacks and predigests food of a variety of chemical makeups. We use that enzyme action to advantage in the cleaning of art."

If there's a painting with Coke or lobster bisque on it, Ingalls says, she might use some of her spit for cleansing. "Food is chemistry," she says. "Whereas water might work, it's not as effective as saliva sometimes. Detergent might be more powerful than we want."

Spittle "provides nice cleaning action. It's predictable, it's controllable and it can be rinsed after it's done the heavy lifting."

Sometimes in reports, she adds, saliva is referred to as "a mild enzymatic solution." Spit is just too gross.

Most spit, however, is unacceptable: A spitball is illegal in baseball. In London, according to the Evening Standard, spitting on bus operators is so prevalent that drivers carry a kit that allows them to give a DNA sample to police. Last spring a teenage spitter was nailed using a national DNA database. In Singapore, spitting in public is considered most offensive and is punishable by a fine.

But in America, people are allowed to spit most places. Just not at each other.

Spit, which the dictionary says is originally onomatopoeic, is an essential element in the English language: Washington is spitting distance from Baltimore, especially when the Redskins play the Ravens. At certain angles, Sen. George Allen (R-Va.) is practically the spit and image of his father, George Allen Sr., who once coached the Redskins.

And the senator knows from spitting. He still likes to put a little dip of Copenhagen tobacco between his lower lip and gum. He spits the muddy results into a paper cup. "He uses very little of it," says David Snepp, Allen's press secretary.

Spitting in Washington has a colorful history. John Nance Garner, vice president under Franklin D. Roosevelt, was euphemistically quoted as saying: "The vice presidency isn't worth a pitcher of warm spit."

And Charles Dickens, visiting in 1842, was astonished at the number of spittoons in town. From his travelogue: "As Washington may be called the head-quarters of tobacco-tinctured saliva, the time is come when I must confess, without any disguise, that the prevalence of those two odious practices of chewing and expectorating began about this time to become anything but agreeable, and soon became most offensive and disagreeable."

He might have called his Washington chapter "Great Expectorations."

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