Spit happens

But wait, that nasty blob could send you to jail
Saturday, March 3, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 6:47 a.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

Booches’ window sign prohibits it. The ancient Romans considered avoiding it rude. The Greeks believed it brought newlyweds good luck.


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The habit is often blamed for the spread of disease and for athletes’ most ungentlemanly actions. Depending on where you live, you can be fined or sent to jail for indulging in public. Whether you want to or not, you produce about 12 ounces a day.

Men do it. Women hate it. That’s right, we’re talking about spit — specifically expectorating in common spaces.


(Photo illustration by Rebecca Bierig)

Spitters are “gross,” says Desi Long, 67. “I don’t know. They lack couth. You expect men to lack couth, not women.”

Self-proclaimed spitter Joe Jacobs, 22, has a different point of view. “I think phlegm is a natural thing, and sometimes you just have to get it out,” he says. “It’s not something I boast about, but then again I’m not embarrassed about it. I always look before I spit. If someone is near me, I’ll wait.”

Maybe we need a law, says Becky Markt, 54, who thinks walking through sidewalk spit might be a health hazard. “I mean, what other bodily fluid are we allowed to leave on the sidewalk?”

Well, we do have a law — sort of. Missouri’s Environmental Health Standards for the Control of Communicable Diseases prohibit spitting on walls or floors in public buildings or in structures used for industrial purposes. It even forbids the practice on railroads or ferry boats or other public transportation. But it doesn’t appear the streets of our beloved downtown fall under the law’s protection.

In London, the issue is being taken so seriously that “swab kits” are handed out to public officials so the victim can submit a sample of an offender’s spit to use for proof in any investigation of the act.

Indeed, many Westerners consider spitting on someone the ultimate insult. Movie mobsters often mutilate and murder, then spit upon the body as the final “take that, you traitor.”

Throwing urine or feces at someone is already a crime in many prisons — and some legislators are pushing to add slobber to the list of outlawed bodily fluids.

And in the wake of so many sports spitfests, Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back coach Art Valerno told The Tampa Tribune that “The NFL should deal with these things severely. Spitting is a violation of someone’s manhood. It’s a cheap, deliberate, thought-out action and it’s a disgusting habit, anyway.”

While public spitting — along with the toilet seat dispute — can be a gender issue, there are perhaps reasons men are more prone to expectorate in front of others. Speaking scientifically, men do produce more saliva than women simply because their salivary glands are larger. More glands, more spit. Or when things get really nasty, more phlegm, which comes from the lungs as well as from the throat.


Booches Billiard Hall on Ninth Street is one of the few establishments to directly outlaw spitting in Columbia, not to mention cursing and lying — except while embellishing fishing stories. (ANN HERMES/Missourian)

“I think men do it because psychologically, we’re more territorial,” says James Deatrick, 37. “We’re alpha creatures, so it’s a sign of dominance, I guess ... like peeing on a tree.” He also thinks that “spitting on someone is a sign of disrespect. You can be from anywhere, and it’s the same. It’s universal. It seems like a reactionary thing to authority.”

David Geary, an MU psychology professor, says that “certainly spitting on someone is an aggressive act and can be a challenge. On the other hand, spitting in general, especially in public, may be viewed differently by men and women because of the sex difference in concern about sanitation and ‘contamination.’”

Women, he says, are much more focused on such issues: “Psychological studies of disgust at this level suggest an implicit concern about contamination.”

Some men, however, are equally fastidious. Spitting is disgusting, says Jason Battelle, 21. During the seemingly endless snowy weather, the “frozen spit wads” especially offended him.

In the past, spit etiquette was much more intricate. Ancient Romans thought it rude to swallow sputum rather than let it go. In the Middle Ages, spitting underneath the table was fine, although spitting on it was gauche.

One of those real Renaissance Men, Erasmus, claimed it was “unmannerly to suck back saliva.” England, that same culture now handing out sputum kits, briefly lionized spitting in the ’70s. English punks attending concerts declared “gobbing,” the act of spitting on a band, a compliment.

Back in the day, there were even rules about how far one could spit in front of a person of higher status. The standard? No further than the spitter’s foot could reach to cover the offending blob.

According to “The Civilizing Process: The History of Manners,” by Norbert Elias, waxed floors, churches, and other places “where cleanliness reigns” eventually became non-spitting zones. Later, spittoons — those brass chamber pot-type things in all the old Western movies — developed as an optional depository.

What may have been the first official public order came in 1886 when the French — who else? — said people could not spit on the floors of hospital waiting rooms. Imagine that. One source even says that by 1916 most large American cities made non-private expectorating taboo.

“Obviously spitting on the ground is an unsanitary practice,” says Eddie Hedrick, Missouri’s Emerging Infections coordinator. “Although the saliva itself contains various microorganisms that survive for varying degrees of time in the environment, for it to cause infection would require many variables to come together at the same time.

“I can find no literature that proves that spitting on the ground has been associated with disease transmission. Many years ago when they discovered that tubercle bacillus could survive for long periods, many women did stop wearing long gowns and dresses for fear they might carry it home although there was never any evidence of this ever happening.”

He says the chance of disease from sidewalk spit is low, but the practice is unsanitary and should be discouraged. Anti-spitting campaigns usually follow epidemics such as flu, TB, SARS, etc. “However,” adds Hedrick, “their effectiveness has never been documented.”

Aside from its bodily role, the spitting image has at least one other positive aspect. Art conservators use saliva as opposed to water (too mild) or detergents (too harsh) to clean and restore valuable pieces of art. Definitely a different form of spit and polish.

Spit has also dripped its way into the English language. From spit curls to spitting distance to spit balls, Americans regularly incorporate the word as a metaphor. Stutterers are told to “spit it out.” The furious tell an offender they’ll spit on his grave.

In today’s society, however, whatever the meaning, whatever the rules, whatever the history or science, it’s safe to say ... spit, like the poor, will always be with us.

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