he spit in his hands

George Thompson george.thompson at NYU.EDU
Wed Jun 23 17:46:37 UTC 2010

Do we do the language of gesture here?  I hope so.

[trial of Thomas Vredenburgh and John Foot, for assaulting Grant, the steward of the steam boat North America; Elias C. Dyer testifies:] Had taken out Foot and Vredenburgh to ride.  When they returned found Grant there.  Witness and Grant were talking at the door, and Foot came out, and being very drunk, spit in his hand, and made a motion to witness in play.  Grant said it was a certain sign that a man wanted to fight when he spit in his hands.  They then clinched and fell down, hurting each other considerably.  They got up and clinched again, when Vredenburgh came out and separated them.  Foot was hurt very much, as well as Grant.  [Foot guilty of A+B, Vredenburgh acquitted]
        N-Y E Post, November 14, 1828, p. 2, cols. 4-5

I don't recall this association of spitting on one's hands with getting ready to fight.
I connect the idea of spitting on one's hands with "getting down to work" -- I suppose arising from an actual practice of spitting on one's hands when preparing to swing a pickax or wield a spade.  I suppose that back before batting gloves became an essential fashion accessory, baseball players might have spit on their hands before stepping in to the batter's box, but I don't recall that.  I've encountered the image in reference to office work, when the spitting is figurative -- probably.

The OED doesn't have an entry for the expression, but it turns up in a couple of quotations:

1857 Olney (Illinois) Times 25 Dec. 1/5 He wur plum crazy fur he jist spit in his hands an leaped over the frunt uv the pulpit.  (under "plumb")
1945 Record (Philadelphia) 4 July 11/1 ‘Ring out the tidings, Grandpa!’ and the old gent spit on his hands, and Whammo! went the Liberty Bell. (under "whammo")

The 1857 passage refers to a man ready to fight, and the 1945 passage to a man pulllng a bell-rope.


George A. Thompson
Author of A Documentary History of "The African Theatre", Northwestern Univ. Pr., 1998, but nothing much lately.

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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