Spitting Fire (photo by joeltelling – CC-BY)
Why should one spit—or expectorate—for those who find the four-letter word as offensive as the practice?
Spitting is the best method of freeing one’s mouth of something one doesn’t want to swallow. That happens to everyone occasionally. Until the late 19th century, it was acceptable in America, less so in Europe. Spittoons were very common in public places, especially where men gathered: bars, courts, the US Senate and Congress. Chewing tobacco and cigar smoking were more common. Women weren’t so delighted, but it was a “man’s world”. “Don’t spit on the floor” signs just indicated that one should use the spittoon—or cuspidor, same thing, but the word from Portuguese sounds finer, well, a little less like spit. “Spit and sawdust” was an expression for a sleazy bar.
If one is superstitious, there are other good reasons to spit, and the superstitions are older than one might think, since they are common not only in Europe but also in Asia. Because the ancient belief was that saliva contained a bit of one’s soul, it had the power to counter evil, also if given another person, to ward off the devil or the evil eye. From India to Europe, when their child has been praised, which could attract the evil eye or devil, some mothers protect the child by spitting on it, or maybe just past it.
The fear that praising a child could attract the evil eye is not just a superstition of people from Asia to Central Europe, as it is found even in Western Scottish folklore and superstitions, although the Scots had a different remedy.
Spitting three times—a magical number—is supposed to be more effective.
The fear that praise or the wish for success could backfire is the basis for more commonly used expressions that many think are just a tradition, not recognizing the underlying superstition. “Toi toi toi” is an appropriate remark to an opera singer before a performance, like “break a leg” to an actor, which obviously is not literally meant. Both expressions are intended to divert the devil or evil eye from influencing the performance. “Toi toi toi” is a mild version of spitting three times. The recipient mustn’t thank for the backhanded wish for success, else it could it could really backfire.
“Pfui” (alternate spellings) is also a mild version of spitting. We all know how the expression is used, but probably not that it is also based on the same superstition to ward off evil. With the expression of disbelief, disdain, consternation at someone’s remark, we reject it, perhaps to subconsciously indicate that they are words we wouldn’t take in our own mouth, spitting them out. Unknowingly however, we are warding off the evil we infer in the remark.
The expression “pfui” comes from Yiddish/German. The stronger German expression, “Pfui Teufel! (devil)” makes clear the connection to the superstition about spitting, as do those who repeat “pfui” three times for emphasis.
Warding off evil and invoking good luck and healing are two sides of the same coin: spitting. Another Scottish superstition describes a cure for warts by applying “fasting spittle” (before breakfast). A Finnish woman, who is a trained nurse, recommended the same cure to me, averring that it worked for her son.
The Scots also spit three times: boys’ spitting over their head after a promise; spitting elsewhere as an alternative to swearing on the Bible. If someone was suspected of having the evil eye, one should spit three times in his/her face or turn a live coal on the fire and exclaim: “The Lord be with us!” as a means of averting the person’s influence. A man would spit in his hand before shaking hands to seal an oral contract; as it were, swearing on the Bible. (Source: “Western Scottish Folklore & Superstitions” by James Napier, ISBN 1590210549.)
Some people still spit in their hands, slapping and clasping them together before starting a task, also one that doesn’t involve grasping a shovel or ax. Perhaps unknowing of the superstition, they are expressing their commitment to themselves to complete the task, or are invoking good luck for their endeavor. My father didn’t spit in his hands but did slap them together as the signal: Now lets get up and do it! To my surprise, my uncle did the same thing. Probably their father also did, and probably his and back to someone who understood the superstition.
Spitting on the ground reminds me of a practice when I was kid on the US Gulf Coast. One way of defusing an argument that was threatening to become a fight was for a bystander to scrape a line on the ground between the two disputants and demand: “First one to spit over the line wins”. I can’t remember if it worked, but it is an interesting psycho-physiological test: whether the one with the better argument mustered up saliva faster and proved he was right.
Elsewhere I found reports that people spit on their pay envelope, or on that of a letter that could bring good or bad news, also on a lottery ticket.
It can’t hurt, maybe it works! And don’t discount it as some heathen superstition. Two of Jesus’ miracles involve spittle, although then as now spitting on a person was a sign of gross contempt, as we know from the reports of his crucifixion.
Mark 7:33: And he took him aside from the multitude, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spit, and touched his tongue; Mark 8:23: And he took the blind man by the hand, and led him out of the town; and when he had spit on his eyes, and put his hands upon him, he asked him if he saw ought.
There is more behind the miracles, however, according to Jewish tradition:
“Jewish tradition taught that in matters of dispute with regard to inheritance, G-d had a test which would supernaturally reveal who the legitimate son was; heir to the leadership birthright and family property inheritance. The people of the second temple period were well aware of a tradition of the Sages which proclaimed that the saliva of a legitimate, first born heir would have healing properties against injury or disease. Once the disputed son’s saliva anointed the affected member, healing was expected to miraculously take place if he was legitimate.”
Jesus’ healing with spittle supposedly demonstrated his claim to be the legitimate Son of God (Baba Bathra 126b). If Jesus’ spittle caused miracles, a mother’s should at least help ward of the devil.
There are still places where it is appropriate to spit. Indeed, spitting is required if one is under twenty-one and enroled in a wine-tasting course in Washington or Oregon.
At serious wine tastings, prior to or during an auction, there is always a handy receptacle. Professional tea tasters also do not swallow, nor do coffee tasters.
There are also spitting contests, besides informal competitions between tobacco chewers vying for distance or accuracy. The recognized contests are not really about spitting, however, since the competitions are about achieving maximum distance with an olive stone, cherry pit or watermelon seed.
Now you can understand why I spat in my hands before submitting the Quezi: “Why shouldn’t one spit?“.