One in the eye for us all

Observations on spitting

Not long ago someone spat at me in the local park. Or so I thought. There were the noises of expectoration - rumbling in bronchi, revving up in trachea, final plosive thwack of phlegm bulleting from mouth - and then a gobbet of sputum whizzing past my nose. Turning to confront the aggressor, I found he was strolling blithely on, quite unaware of offence. He wasn't spitting at me; he was just, well, spitting.

After decades during which Britain's public places were saliva-free, expectoration has returned - with renewed vigour. Tennis players do it at Wimbledon, rugby players at Twickenham, football players all over the place. What does the resurgence of spitting tell us about Britain?

First, we are a more individualistic and driven society. Sport spitting, for example, is the product of a will to win, characteristic of a professionalised society, in which rewards for success are high and neighbourly nicenesses can go hang. Respiratory blockages are barriers to performance, and must be expelled immediately. Hence the affixing by athletes of clothes-peg-like oxygenators to noses. Hence, too, the absence of handkerchiefs: in a contact sport they might provide a grabbable protuberance.

Aggressive-defensive spitting is a street variant. Those in danger of arrest threaten hepatitis with a mere pursing of the lips. Recently my partner, remonstrating with a youth abusing a dog, had a projectile of half-chewed hamburger aimed at her. Infectiveness has become a weapon of life-threatening proportions, yet one that eludes the usual categories of assault and punishment - a kind of low-tech smart bomb, ideally suited to an age obsessed with health and hygiene.

Who are the spitters? Many are younger males, fuelled by sporting allegiances and brand awareness. Through what a sociologist might call diffusion, they have copied their sporting icons and adopted the sputum as a badge of identity. It's what kids do nowadays, along with wearing hoodies and talking in a mangled African Caribbean patois.

Yet expectoration also speaks to our taboos. It used to be beyond the pale. Dickens was appalled by its prevalence in America. Following the discovery of the TB bacillus in 1882, campaigns against spitting were launched in Europe and the US. Notices included: "Gentlemen will not, others must not, spit on the floor."

But still, expectoration raged on. China remains a nightmare for sputaphobes. Spitting is associated with qat, chewed in Gulf and Indian Ocean countries. The most notable recent case of spitting in football involved El-Hadji Diouf, Bolton's Senegalese player, who couldn't understand the fuss at first but now says he recognises "cultural differences" in the UK.

So should we welcome spitting as cultural diversity and condemn public health concerns as racially encoded science? Or should we defend "civilisation" (having first defined it)? It's multicultural dynamite. There is more to spitting, it seems, than meets the eye (or, we hope, doesn't).

This article first appeared in the 25 April 2005 issue of the New Statesman, How the greens were choked to death