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Dead Ringers and Spitten Images

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Two familiar terms that have inspired lots of bogus etymologies are “dead ringer” and “spitting image.” “Dead ringer” probably comes from horse racing, where a ringer is a horse that may look like other horses in a race but is actually from a higher class of competitors, and therefore a sure bet. The dead in this sense suggests the idea of “exact” or “without a doubt,” also found in such phrases as “dead certain.” As for the term variously spelled “spitting image” or “spittin’ image” or “spit and image,” Yale University linguist Larry Horn has argued convincingly that the original form is actually “spitten image,” likening a father-son resemblance to an exact copy spat out from the original. This is part of a complete episode.

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