to "spit-shine"

Douglas G. Wilson douglas at NB.NET
Sun Mar 4 21:53:34 UTC 2007

>   I agree with Wilson that the emphasis in the recent use of "spit shine"
> is on the brilliance of the shine, not on the spit.

I haven't heard "spit shine" much lately but as I recall when I heard it
routinely ca. 1960 it referred to a shine done with saliva (plus shoe
polish of course), on the assumption that this was a way to get a good
shine. Certainly if my friend had polished his shoes with shoe-polish and
spit, we would have called it a spit shine, even if it came out only so-so.

>My SWAG is that in early use (say 1922) the emphasis was on the spitting
>and the _hasty nature_ of the shine.  In that case OED might need to list
>two senses of the noun. The more recent usage is likely to have been
>influenced by "spit and polish," itself arising not from the brilliance of
>the shine but from the frequency of the shining - hastily with spit when

In the 1922 instance, I've read a few paragraphs (but not the whole
'novel'): I believe from the context "spit shine" is meant to indicate the
best shine immediately feasible, not at all a hasty or half-hearted one.
These unsophisticated impecunious ragamuffins have lined up in their
"Sunday best" in the company of their mothers etc. I suppose that the boy
has shined his shoes with spit and stove polish, perhaps not having shoe
polish available. This is probably meant to contrast with his usual
unpolished state. Of course it is not intended that the reader take the
result to be very fine by high-society standards.

Whether it was thought by the author that saliva made a very good shine or
whether it was thought that saliva would merely improve a stove-polish
shine from lousy to fair, I don't know.

IMHO it is necessary to be cautious in interpretation of isolated examples
such as this one. Did "spit shine" refer to shoes at all here? I speculate
that it did, from the context. However the collocation "spit shine" in this
epoch (according to N'archive) usually referred to a baseball: there were
apparently expressions "spit ball", "shine ball", and "spit shine ball"; I
don't know how these are related but some of the baseball experts will
probably know.

The existence of the collocation "spit and polish" (from 1880's at least)
suggests to me that it was conventionally thought that things could be
effectively polished with saliva ... whether there's any etymological
relationship between "spit and polish" and "spit shine" or not.

Did "spit and polish" originally refer to simply putting saliva on
something and rubbing it with a cloth, or was some conventional polishing
material included also?

I suppose it is also possible that one or both of these expressions
originated as a reanalysis of something like "spit polish/shine" =
"polish/shine so good that you can see your reflection": "spit" sort of
means "image" as Larry Horn well knows. Maybe a little far, uh, fetched?

-- Doug Wilson

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