A mirror image is the reversed copy of any reflected likeness, where left is right and right is left. Narcissus fell in love with his mirror image when he saw it reflected in a pool of water. Unable to tear himself away from admiring his great beauty, he died there. On that very spot, a flower appeared and was named after him. Narcissus’ other lasting legacy is our word narcissism, defined by the Mayo Clinic as a mental condition in which people have an inflated sense of their own importance, a deep need for excessive attention and admiration, and a lack of empathy for others.
For the Marx Brothers’ take on mirror images, watch this 3-minute scene from their 1933 film Duck Soup.
Doppelgängers are mirror images, too
Dopplegänger is the German word for “double walker.” Dopplegängers look remarkably alike but are biologically unrelated. People unfamiliar with the term usually call a pair of look-alikes doubles. A doppelgänger is an exact copy who doesn’t just resemble you, but also walks, talks, acts and dresses just like you do.
The first one I recall is from Disney’s The Parent Trap in 1961
The film was based upon the German book Das Doppelte Lottchen, about two identical-looking girls who meet at summer camp and switch roles. You may remember the 1998 version with Lindsay Lohan. Either way, Annie and Hallie were startled at their unexplained similarities until they learned they were identical twins who had been separated at birth.
In the past, doppelgängers were usually portrayed as ghostly creatures who were signs of bad luck. Mary Todd Lincoln thought the one Abe saw in his mirror was an omen that he would be re-elected as president. Lincoln said he believed his doppelgänger portended his fate that he would die during his second term of office. Both were right.
What does two people looking alike have to do with spitting?
Search for <spitting image> and you are likely to be directed to Wikipedia, where you will find it is the name of a British satirical television show that features Muppet-style puppets that are caricatures of notable public figures.
You also may land on Spittin’ Image, the identical twin duo from Ohio that plays Motown, Bluegrass and Country…
…or Spitting Image, the third album from the Irish rock band Strypes.
If you happen to make it to a dictionary, you will find that the term means a person who looks just like someone else.
Spitting images are more than just look-alikes, though.
The use of the term spitting image was originally restricted to describing closely related people. It is most often used to point out the physical similarities between mother and daughter, or more commonly, father and son. As the story goes, Kirk Douglas was at home watching a film in which his son Michael played the lead. Kirk thought he was watching his younger self.
If you go back even farther, you will find some really neat stuff
Some say the original figure of speech meant the boy looked so much like his father that it was as if he had been spat out of his father’s mouth. Spitting images take the similarities beyond mere look-alikes to include the notion that the boy not only looks like his father, but acts like him, too, as in he is the spirit and image of his father, alike in character and behavior as well as physical appearance.
Over time, words get blended together
The term for it is eliding, and it happens when people slur over syllables or even omit them entirely. It’s the reason why people in Misipi say Cocola, people from Louisville say Luavl, and Canadians say Tronno. What began as five distinct syllables (spir-it-and-im-age) gradually elided to the current pronunciation, spittin’ image. That’s in English, though. Phrases.org.uk says the Norwegian version is “som snytt ut av nesen paa,” or “as if blown out of the nose of.”
A few say splitting image
But that sounds more like looking at what you’d see in a cracked mirror than a remarkably similar look-alike.
Folk wisdom says it’s easy to find a look-alike
But we know folk wisdom is unreliable and inconsistent. Its adages, aphorisms, and proverbs sound good, but how can they be true when most have an opposite that is also supposed to be true?
- Look before you leap. He who hesitates is lost.
- Out of sight, out of mind. Absence makes the heart grow fonder.
- Actions speak louder than words. The pen is mightier than the sword.
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Mathematicians say the chances of finding your exact double are one in a trillion, which is getting really close to impossible. You can look for yours at twinstrangers.net. Nearly 10 million people have used its A.I. facial recognition software to search for their carbon copies.
The BBC says François Brunelle photographed more than 200 pairs of doubles for his I’m Not A Look-alike Project. Check out some of the sites with photos of what they say are doppelgängers and you will likely find a few are remarkably similar, but most look more like cousins at best. Kottke.org has some good ones.