Saliva

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Kate sent me two words today. The first was spit, the second saliva. ‘Spit’, she texted, ‘is more of a verb isn’t it?’ There’s no reason I couldn’t write about a verb on this blog, but certainly most (all?) of my prompts so far have been nouns. This harks back to my original inspiration – the six- or seven-year-old girl in my young writers’ group who told me her class had been made to journal (how did that word become a verb?!) about the word fish. Verbs are, on the whole, more emotive than nouns. They seem to push at things. Nouns, by comparison, seem stolid, frictionless. What, as a verb, does the word spit call up? Apart from the lovely-sounding synonym expectorate, images of a singularly unpleasant character. There seems to be an almost universal prohibition on spitting. Singapore is one country where it is especially taboo, apparently attracting huge fines and even jail sentences for those who do it. Presumably, underneath this taboo, there lies a fear that saliva is unhygienic, a carrier and transmitter of virological nasties. (Mice have been shown to carry a healing agent in their saliva – think of the phrase ‘to lick one’s wounds clean’ – but, sadly, it has never been found in humans.) To spit at someone is widely regarded as almost uniquely offensive, worse in its way than to slap or punch someone. The wound, I suppose, is deeper. To be spat on is to feel worthless, degraded, and contemptible, to be made to feel utterly unworthy. In high school, the act was transmuted into spit-balling – a term, curiously, which has found its way into the corporate lexicon to mean to throw out an idea for discussion – whereby chiefly boys would remove the ink reservoirs from their biros and fill the emptied pens with pea-sized, saliva-coated paper balls, which they would then fire at their unsuspecting classmates in the manner of a blowgun. Strange tribute though it may seem, no doubt some of this spit-balling was intended to draw the attention of certain girls – an interesting fact in the light of a recent study that showed saliva contains testosterone and that, by administering sloppy, open-mouthed kisses, men are (unconsciously) trying to stimulate the female sex drive.

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