to "spit-shine"

Jonathan Lighter wuxxmupp2000 at YAHOO.COM
Mon Mar 5 15:27:27 UTC 2007

The observation that jump boots hold a shine better than others squares with my feeling - which I haven't mentioned for fear of looking ludicrous - that modern military "spit-shining," as an institution, was originally associated stereotypically with airborne units, perhaps towards the end of World War II, though I don't believe it shows up in literature for another decade or so.


Dave Wilton <dave at WILTON.NET> wrote:
  ---------------------- Information from the mail header -----------------------
Sender: American Dialect Society
Poster: Dave Wilton
Subject: Re: to "spit-shine"

A couple of updates to bring the technique up to the 1980s, at least.

First, spit shines had become a very common thing in the Army by the
mid-to-late 80s. It was expected, albeit not required, that you would have
spit-shined boots while in garrison--at least among the career enlisted and
the officers. A good way to tell a soldier who was likely to reenlist was
whether or not his boots were spit-shined. In fact, Cocoran jump boots, were
commonly worn in garrison, even by "legs" (non-paratroopers), because they
took and held a shine better than ordinary boots.

As for technique, I was taught not to actually use saliva. Instead, clean
water was used instead. This was easier as you didn't have to constantly
come up with a mouthful of spit and it was said to give a better shine than
spit. (I never attempted to do an entire boot with spit; what
experimentation I did indicated that plain water was just as good, easier,
and less disgusting.)

And once your boots were spit-shined, it was relatively easy to maintain the
shine. 10 minutes a day was sufficient to keep a spit shine on a pair of
boots, provided they didn't get too muddy or scuffed during the day.

-----Original Message-----
From: American Dialect Society [mailto:ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU] On Behalf Of
Wilson Gray
Sent: Sunday, March 04, 2007 11:01 PM
Subject: Re: to "spit-shine"

I'm beginning to get the impression that no one here except your
humble correspoondent has ever spit-shined any kind of footware.
Spit-shining as I learned to do it in the late 'Fifties was quite
time-consuming, so that people tried to keep one pair of boots
spit-shined for inspection, keeping the other pair for daily use.
However, this was not permitted during Basic Training. You had to wear
a different pair of boots every day, so that shining both pairs of
boots had to be done every night.

At that time, spit-shining was regarded as a Marines thing, not as an
Army thing. We GI's didn''t have to bother with it unless we just
happened to feel like it. Boots and shoes polished with Shinola liquid
were sufficient unto the passing of the daily inspection, even during
Basic Training. Unfortunately, because the military barracks life is
so boring when it's not interrupted by combat, you just begin to
happen to feel like spit-shining, for lack of anything more
interesting to do.

To do a spit shine, you take a new or a clean(ed) boot / shoe and
stick a hand into it to hold it in place. Then, with the other hand,
taking a cotton ball such as women use to remove fingernail polish,
you dab the surface of a can of Kiwi brand boot polish. Next, you spit
on the boot / shoe and rub the dab of boot polish into the spittle,
using a circular motion over a space no larger than a quarter. After
thirty seconds or so, you begin to see a quarter-sized area of leather
shinier than it was before. Repeat over the surface of the entire boot
/ shoe till it reflects light as though made of patent leather. This
takes a half-hour, at least, for each shoe. Of course, for boots, it
takes longer.

You can get the same result by wetting the cotton ball, squeezing out
the excess water, and simply using that to dab and polish. It's much
more hygienic than, and just as effective as, spitting.

Later, I dicovered that you could put a spoonful or so of water into
the cap of the boot-polish can, brush the tips of the first three
fingers of your hand across the surface of the Kiwi, and swipe the
polish from these fingers over the leather till your fingertips are
clean. Then dip these same fingertips into the water and brush them
over the area over which you have previously brushed the Kiwi until
that area begins to shine. Repeat over the surface of the entire boot
/ shoe, etc., etc. Obviously, you need neither cotton nor spittle for
this method. Interestingly enough, after you have finished, your
fingers will not be covered with boot polish. Instead, they will be


On 3/4/07, Jim Parish wrote:
> ---------------------- Information from the mail header
> Sender: American Dialect Society
> Poster: Jim Parish
> Subject: Re: to "spit-shine"
> Jonathan Lighter wrote:
> > I agree with Wilson that the emphasis in the recent use of "spit shine"
> > on the brilliance of the shine, not on the spit.
> For whatever it may be worth: one of the songs on Barry Sadler's
> _Green Berets_ album was titled "Garret Trooper". It described a
> certain kind of soldier, who talked big and looked good but wasn't the
> real deal. In one verse, describing an encounter with such a trooper, he
> sings, "Know what I saw when I looked down? A spit-shined boot." This
> would be from the mid-to-late sixties. (When did "Ballad of the Green
> Berets" come out? 1967?)
> Jim Parish
> ------------------------------------------------------------
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