Browsing the French morning paper over breakfast ,my attention was caught by a very unflattering close-up photograph of a woman’s mouth , her lips in a tight ‘O’ and her tongue cradling something brown. What !! Thought I; and on closer inspection discovered that the great annual French cherry-pip-spitting season had begun. This led me to musing about the human obsession with spit, spit spot, spit shine, spitting image , I spit in your eye and were I actually to do so, you would be so insulted that we would be duelling at dawn.
While it seems that most cultures frown at spitting, some do not. But before I venture down this path I must point out quite strongly that there is spitting and spitting. The spitting in central Asia and China involves deep sinus purging which is practiced so publicly and offensively that a large part of the Beijing pre-Olympic budget went into trying to convince the locals that public spitting is frowned upon in the West and – so as not to offend the foreign devils – would the Chinese please stop with the spitting already.
Spitting seems to be a national pastime in central Asia. It first struck me in Samarqand in Uzbekistan. Where suddenly I realised that the pavement was covered in the yellow oyster-like contents of the nations sinuses, which to me seemed somehow worse than dog pooh. This has got to be the most vile and disgusting habit known to man. With a loud sniff and guttural hawking the result of the horrific noise is then plop-splat expectorated onto the most convenient pavement. I can deal with many things but this was just one step beyond. I promptly stopped looking at the pavement; Samarqand is a good place to sort out those lingering posture problems.
In Urumuqi , China, the art of spitting is very well-developed . My worst spit memory is that of a well dressed Chinese woman who in a fairly upmarket hotel felt the need to expectorate just before entering the elevator we were all waiting for. So this well-groomed lady proceeded with the snarfing, the hawking and the spit into the ashtray, with precision that spoke of many years of experience. I was in a state of horrified shock.
As these memories overwhelmed me this morning I abandoned all hope of further nourishment . If you too are enjoying a meal at this point I do apologise; but I felt the spit obsession deserved some research and did a quick surf to see what the internet could tell me about humans and spit.
Typing in ‘ Why do humans spit?’ Led me into areas of the internet inhabited by the semi-literate and foul-mouthed . It also taught me that India rivals China in the love of public spitting. I discovered that most people find spitting an utterly repugnant habit but nowhere did I find why humans feel the need to spit in public . But it does seem to hang together with the acceptability or not of performing other unmentionables in public. The distinction must lie in levels of poverty and living space. The richer a nation the more it can afford clean public toilets, tissues ,handkerchiefs and other niceties that make living together more pleasant
Next I typed in ‘spitting and superstition ‘ as my mother brings from her north-eastern German childhood strange quirks that make her believe that to admire ones hands brings bad luck, which is only dispelled if one quickly spits on them. Please remember that this type of spitting is a front of mouth, more air than liquid, variety. A form of spit that is also practised in the Greek culture where, after receiving a compliment it is considered wise to spit on your person, three times, to fend off the evil eye. Fisherman spit on their nets for the same reason and in the film ‘My Big Fat Greek Wedding’ we are introduced to the strange Greek habit of spitting on the bride for good luck. I have visions of the Chinese doing this and … eurrgh there goes my appetite for lunch.
The business of spitting for good luck is also found in Africa amongst the Massai. The Massai are great believers in spitting for luck ,they will spit on children, on people they are pleased to see and on their hands before shaking hands to seal a promise – boys in the west still do this, despite the general cultural taboo of spitting- the explanation given for the Massai love of spitting is that they believe that when it rains god is spitting on earth. It follows therefore that to spit and be spat upon is a very good thing. So if you have a secret desire to spit or be spat upon a visit to the Massai of Africa will find you in good company.
Even the bible mentions spitting in two different contexts, that of shaming by spitting in someone’s face and blessing which is apparently something Jesus did by spitting on followers to heal and ward off evil spirits. Spitting is obviously a deeply imbedded human behaviour and ,as with most primitive human behaviour ,our overwhelming competitive drive kicks in even when spitting. When I asked my search engine to find spitting competitions the most purse lipped of all countries, America, came up tops for variety.
The watermelon pip spitting competition and the cherry pip spitting competitions are the most frequently practiced and the cherry spit has now claimed international status and is practiced as fervently in Europe as America ; it possibly even originates on the European continent . In Spain there is the olive pip spitting competition that draws no less than 25 000 spectators. There seems to be a great fascination with the distance an olive pip can be spat. While spitting pips might seem a fairly harmless thing to do, the dead cricket spitting competitions of America take spitting onto an altogether more bizarre plain. The competition rules require that competitors place a dead, brown house-cricket of between 45 and 55 milligrams fully in their mouths and spit it as far as possible. The spit is only valid if the whole cricket hits the ground. Judges check the missile for the full contingent of six leg ,four wings, one body, a head and two antennae. The world record for spitting a cricket is held by Daniel Capps at 32 feet and one half inch. Now while the Americans are a strange bunch they do not hold the record of the most bizarre spitting competition, that distinction ,I believe, must fall to the South Africans.
The South Africans are great fans of the art of spitting ‘Bokdrolle’. What this translates to is people putting a ball of Kudu dung – the balls are tiny I admit – into their mouths and seeing who can spit it the furthest. Now these are people who under normal circumstances would shudder at the thought of touching a piece of animal pooh, let alone put it in their mouths. But tell them that it is in the quest to see who can spit said piece of pooh the furthest, then all inhibitions are lost and pooh is spat about with abandon. There are hardly any rules for the spitting of pooh but it is commonly understood that a certain amount of very strong liquor should be consumed before, during and after the event.
From this all this information I concluded that humans are hardwired to spit and started surfing the bonobo monkey – as we share 98% of our DNA with this primate- to see how far back in our evolution this tendency manifests itself. My research showed positive results; the bonobo are great fans of spitting on hands and sharing spit i.e. kissing- now that is some spit that nobody goes eww at- and we do seem to share far more behavioural traits with bonobos than just spitting . These are monkeys that also enjoy sex ,a lot, all the time .Both the hetro- and homosexual variety. But that is another story.