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 grossly 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.”