I was wandering along a street the other day, heading to the shop to buy broccoli and dental floss, when a man, approaching on the same pavement, suddenly turned to his left and spat.
He was about 10 feet away when he did this, so I was close enough to get a good view of the huge ball of saliva flying through the air, landing with an audible squelch onto the section of pavement I was about to walk on.
My immediate reaction was disgust at his ill-manners. (Without wishing to stereotype he was wearing a baseball cap and a T-shirt emblazoned with the words ‘We’re all going to Hell’. Actually I didn’t have the best view and it could have said ‘Hull’, but same thing I suppose).
I glared at him but he walked on oblivious, without making eye contact.
I thought for a moment about shouting after him: “Don’t you think it’s a bit unpleasant to spit right in front of someone on the pavement you repellent buffoon?”
But then I noticed the shape of his not unsubstantial biceps under his T-shirt and thought better of it.
Instead I carefully stepped to the right of the pavement to avoid treading in his bodily fluid and spent the rest of the journey muttering to myself about the state of society today.
But then I got home and – after having a broccoli sandwich and flossing my teeth – decided to do a spot of research about the act of spitting and, to my surprise, found that I may have done this gentleman with the T-shirt and the baseball cap a disservice.
It is, you see, only relatively recently that spitting has become a bad thing in the Western world. In the Middle Ages, for example, people used to walk around spitting all over the place. It was felt that sucking back saliva and swallowing was ill-mannered and so instead you were positively encouraged, no matter where you were – post office queue, theatre, the mother-in-law’s – to eject it from your mouth instead.
In the 1800s the authorities began to deem it a little vulgar for folk to be spitting on the floor all the time and so spittoons were introduced. These were little bowls that, as the name suggests, people could spit into. They had them everywhere – in pubs, hotels, stores, courtrooms, railway carriages. You could even buy a pocket-sized spittoon to carry on your person. Lovely.
All this spitting malarkey changed in 1918, though, with the outbreak of the great flu pandemic, one of the deadliest natural disasters in human history, which killed 50-100 million people across the world – an astonishing three to five per cent of the world’s population.
You’ll probably know this pandemic by the name of Spanish flu, but it’s not because Spain was particularly hard-hit. Wartime censors minimized reports of the illness and subsequent mortality rates in countries like Germany, Britain and the United States, but papers in neutral Spain were free to report it in – hence it gained the nickname of Spanish flu. The outbreak of the pandemic (which, shockingly, killed more people in 24 weeks than Aids has killed in 24 years and more in a year than the Black Death killed in a century) was traced to a hospital treating troops in France and, to cut a long story short, of the many lessons learned, one was that spitting was a surefire way to spread germs and pass on disease.
So spitting gradually became a social taboo ... though clearly no one has told footballers or the baseball-capped fella that passed me in St Annes.
I’ve been there, dung that
While we’re talking spitting (now there’s a sentence you don’t read everyday), a couple of facts for you.
An average person, did you know, produces 25,000 quarts of spit in their lifetime – that’s enough to fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool, though admittedly, not a pool you’d be enthusiastic about doing a length of breaststroke in.
Babies are the worst culprits. In its first year of life, a baby will drool 38 gallons of spittle.
Having watched Mrs Canavan while she is sleeping,however, I’m pretty sure she dribbles that much onto her pillow in one night. Some mornings I’ve even had to pull her to my side of the bed for fear she might drown.
In South Africa, they hold something called the Kuda Dung-Spitting championships.
This involves spitting as far as you can a small, hard pellet of excrement from the kuda antelope (if you’re halfway through a sandwich at this point I apologise, especially if it’s got Branston Pickle on).
Apparently this past-time began because the kuda is notoriously difficult to hunt and infamous for leaving a trail of dung pellets while managing to elude its hunter (though I think I too would leave behind a trail of dung if I was being chased by a group of angry-looking men with spears).
The world record for spitting kuda muck, by the way, is 15.56 metres (a whopping 51 feet) set in 2006.
If you fancy shoving some in your mouth, I’m told entries for this year’s competition are now open.