Search us!

Search The Word Detective and our family of websites:

This is the easiest way to find a column on a particular word or phrase.

To search for a specific phrase, put it between quotation marks.






Comments are OPEN.

We deeply appreciate the erudition and energy of our commenters. Your comments frequently make an invaluable contribution to the story of words and phrases in everyday usage over many years.

Please note that comments are moderated, and will sometimes take a few days to appear.



shameless pleading





Pay through the nose, spitting image, not to say

Trifecta fun.

Dear Word Detective: Three things I’m dying to know: First, what’s the origin of “to pay through the nose,” meaning to pay a high price (in money or some other resource)? Second, what’s the origin of calling someone the “spit and image” (or is it “spittin’ image” after all, as my grandmother used to say?), to indicate that they look like just another person? The “image” part makes sense, but I’m having trouble connecting “spit” with it. And third, despite English being my native language, I’ve never figured out whether “The situation is X, not to say Y” means “the situation is X and also Y” or “the situation is X but not Y.” Can you help me with this? — Rosemarie Eskes, Rochester, NY.

Of course I can, but there won’t be any room left for stories about my cats. That may not bother you, but Inky is sitting over there glaring at me as I type, so if I’m cut off in mid-sentence, you’ll have to carry on without me.

“To pay through the nose means,” as I’m sure all of us living on Planet Shopalot know, to pay an exorbitant (from the Latin for, I kid you not, “jumped the track”) price or to be gnose08.pngrossly overcharged. The exact logic of the phrase, which first appeared in English in the 17th century, is unknown. But it may well be rooted in likening being overcharged to being punched and given a bad nosebleed. This theory is strengthened by the use of “bleed” during the same period to mean “cheat or defraud.”

“Spitting image” (or “spit and image,” as it first appeared in the 19th century), meaning “exact likeness, twin,” has been a subject of considerable dispute among etymologists. The “spit” part of the phrase is definitely saliva (as opposed to the barbecue implement), and the sense of the phrase probably reflects the earlier use of “spit” to mean “exact likeness” (“A daughter … the very spit of the old captain,” 1825). This ungainly metaphor has a long history (“He is as like his father as if he was spit out of his mouth; said of a child much resembling his father,” 1788) that today, in the age of DNA paternity tests, seems weirdly prescient.

“Not to say” is one of a number of fixed phrases in English using “say” as a rhetorical device, as in “let us say” introducing a hypothetical situation (“Let us say that Dave does get the job…”) or “that is to say” meaning “in other words” or “in effect.” In the case of “not to say,” the speaker is implying that there is a stronger word or phrase that might have been used but wasn’t (“Your lack of cooperation, not to say active sabotage, presents a problem”). So in terms of your question, “not to say” means “the situation is X, but some people would go further and call it Y.”

11 comments to Pay through the nose, spitting image, not to say

  • In regard to the man who was curious as to the origin of the term “paying through the nose.” According to the History channel the term derived from the Vikings in the 9nth century, they put a tax on the Irish, the Irish paid the Vikings to not raid their towns. If they did not pay the taxes the Vikings would slit the noses as a punishment and warning.

  • Aredt

    I bumped here thru google searchin for origins of “payin thru nose”. Nice explanation. Good site. Would book mark it. :-)


  • Jm

    When a log is split, both of the insides look the same, but mirror imaged. Same thing when making wood verniers, when split the two half look identical, but mirrored. Same with splitting marble, each face now being a mirror of the other one.

    The identical mirrored image you get when you split something shows that the two came from one source and look like mirrors of each other. What one would see if looking at them selves in a mirror.

    Splitting image is simply the almost identical mirror image you get when you split something.

  • David

    I recall reading once that the expression “spittin’ image” was actually a dialectic contraction of the words, “spirit and image”, meaning the same in looks and deeds. In other words, “He’s the spittin’ image of his father” means, “He’s just like his father.”

  • Cathy Britt

    David, you are right…back in slave days, they pronounced spirit as spi-ut, and the word “and” came out like the letter “n”. So, spirit and image sounded like spi-ut-n image…hence “spittin’ image”. I always laugh when people think they are being proper by saying spitting image…it has nothing to do with spit and everything to do with a culture from bye-gone days.

  • Rich May

    It was on a special on the history of SF. It was a corrupt politician who took payoffs and he had a big nose.but can’t recall name. It was on PBS or the history channel a few years ago.

  • Roxana Cowen

    Oh stunning colors, love how you mixed different shades of blue together.

  • Harmon

    A conversation over time! But my late contribution is that Cathy’s observation about “spirit” strikes me as correct. But the original pronunciation does not derive from “slave days.” The Elizabethan pronunciation was “spurit” – almost “spuit” – and just as “ask” was pronounced “ax” by the Elizabethans, it appears to me that the pronunciation of spirit was faithfully preserved by the slaves. And “spirit and image” makes much more sense as a derivation than the other theories.

  • Eileen Q

    I heard if a crop sharer did not meet their expected yield the land owner would crack them on the nose. It was a shaming & painful punishment. Are you familiar with the Lakeoffs? They are both linguists I know at least one is a UC Berkeley professor.

  • Tihomir

    According to a quick survey I conducted in my two-member household, the expression “spitting image” exists in both french and serbo-croatian languages. This makes me think that it would have originated a long, long time ago and would have been in widespread use in Europe way before first immigrants came to the new world. Extending my survey a little, I just found out that the same expression exists accross India. Perhaps other commenters can speak for other languages and other world regions?

Leave a Reply




You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

Please support
The Word Detective

by Subscribing.


Follow us on Twitter!




Makes a great gift! Click cover for more.

400+ pages of science questions answered and explained for kids -- and adults!