I've Got a Secretion: The Sociology of Spitting

Sean Taylor leaves the field after he was ejected from Saturday's Redskins-Bucs game for unsportsmanlike conduct during Washington's 17-10 win over Tampa Bay. The Redskins safety was fined $17,000 by the NFL for spitting in the face of Tampa Bay running back Michael Pittman.
Sean Taylor leaves the field after he was ejected from Saturday's Redskins-Bucs game for unsportsmanlike conduct during Washington's 17-10 win over Tampa Bay. The Redskins safety was fined $17,000 by the NFL for spitting in the face of Tampa Bay running back Michael Pittman. (By Charles W. Luzier -- Reuters)
By Linton Weeks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 10, 2006

You got your good spit: Soldiers use it to shine their shoes. Dentists encourage an after-rinse ptui. A handshake deal really means something if it's sealed with it.

And you got your bad spit: Like the loogie allegedly hawked by Sean Taylor at Tampa Bay's Michael Pittman in Saturday's Redskins-Bucs game. Didn't do it, said Taylor; did too, said the ref, who was so appalled he kicked Taylor out of the game. (Taylor was fined $17,000 by the National Football League yesterday.)

Moral of the story:

"Spitting your bodily fluids at someone is seen as more offensive than hitting them," Ross Coomber, a British sociologist who has written on the meaning of spit, told the Guardian back in 2003. "It's obviously a form of violence, very confrontational."

Hawking a loogie, spewing, spluttering or whatever you want to call it is very human. And inhuman. Getting slimed by someone else's effluence is downright humiliating.

Witnessed recently: A scene on L Street across from the Chocolate Moose. An old bearded man suddenly goes berserk and runs into a young woman walking the opposite direction. A man in a swanky topcoat pushes the old man away from the stunned woman. The old man advances toward the topcoated guy and begins to spit in his face. The young man is so shaken, he stumbles away from the scene -- disgusted, degraded, defeated.

We have seen that in sports and in life through the years -- human hatred reduced to spittle. It's our venom. Our viscous vitriol. Our mobile bile. There are countless instances of inhospitable spittle. In the early 1990s, an AIDS patient in Ohio spat his infected blood at a nurse and law officers. In the late 1990s, rapper Foxy Brown was accused of spitting at a couple of hotel employees. Last year a man spit in the face of Jane Fonda in Kansas City. In Florida a guitarist for the band Rush allegedly spit in the face of a sheriff's deputy at a Fort Myers hotel.

We have also seen it in the movies. Gregory Peck gets a faceful of phlegm in "To Kill a Mockingbird." So does John Cassavetes in "Rosemary's Baby."

"I Spit on Your Grave" is a trashy classic.

Spit isn't always spite. Art conservators use saliva to clean some of our nation's greatest treasures. Spit, says Helen Ingalls of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, is the "dirty little secret" of the conservation world. "Saliva attacks and predigests food of a variety of chemical makeups. We use that enzyme action to advantage in the cleaning of art."

If there's a painting with Coke or lobster bisque on it, Ingalls says, she might use some of her spit for cleansing. "Food is chemistry," she says. "Whereas water might work, it's not as effective as saliva sometimes. Detergent might be more powerful than we want."

Spittle "provides nice cleaning action. It's predictable, it's controllable and it can be rinsed after it's done the heavy lifting."


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