Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Episode 225: Spit Into the Wind


This week Shauna and Dan talk about spitting into the wind. Gross. Fortunately, there is an early phrase that is less gross. Bonus: Our thanks to archivists, language researchers, and other professional word nerds. Also, combatants fighting the invisible opponents.

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Bunny Trails: A Word History Podcast

Episode 225: Spit Into the Wind

Record Date: February 25, 2024

Air Date: February 28, 2024



Welcome to Bunny Trails, a whimsical adventure of idioms and other turns of phrase.

I’m Dan Pugh


And I’m Shauna Harrison

Each week we take an idiom or other turn of phrase and try to tell the story from its entry into the English language, to how it’s used today.

Opening Hook

There are times in life when we jump into something without thinking about the consequences or without preparing properly. Maybe we even saw a warning sign or received a word of caution from someone more knowledgeable or experienced… but we plunge ahead anyway... out of excitement, perhaps, or thanks to the confidence of youth… And what is the result? It’s a little bit like spitting into the wind.


According to Collins Dictionary, spit in the wind means,


to waste your time by trying to do something which has little or no chance of success

End quote

This is a simple definition of the phrase and it covers the basics of its meaning. However, the phrase is often utilized in a more nuanced manner. It may be used to imply futility or sometimes idiocy. Applications of the phrase may focus on the action being taken, the goal of the action, the person taking the action, or the result of the attempted action.

The interesting thing about this phrase is that it isn’t about the spitting…

Here is an expansive definition for the word wind as a figurative term from Oxford English Dictionary.


As a thing devoid of sense or perception, or that is unaffected by what one does to it: in phrases usually expressing futile action or effort, as to beat the wind, to speak to the wind, to spit against (or into) the wind.

End quote

This brings in another phrase that carries the same meaning… beat the wind.

According to Oxford English Dictionary,


to beat the air, to beat the wind, (to beat the water obsolete): to fight to no purpose or against no opposition; in reference to 1 Corinthians ix. 26. Sometimes referring to the ordeal by battle, when one of the parties made default, in which case the other is said to have gained his cause by dealing so many blows upon the air.

End quote

We’ll touch on some of these ideas as we work through some of the uses over time. First, let’s look at the timing of these phrases…

Dan, any ideas on when these various phrases started showing up?

We find phrases with the metaphorical use of the wind in print in English as early as the 1300s.

One of the earliest is found in the classic work, Of Arthour & of Merlin, penned around 1330. This excerpt is translated from the version known as The Auchinleck Manuscript accessed online via the National Library of Scotland.  


They led them both swiftly and near, So that without fail, They might come to that battle.

Sir Gawain had with him, as I believe, Of armed boys fifteen thousand, And as he rode along the way, He continually gathered more, I say.

Leave these [soldiers], let us speak Of Segremor, so bold. Forty thousand struck against him, And he against them straightaway, Twelve hundred against forty thousand, As fierce as smoke against the wind.

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The final line in the original text reads, “so smoke oȝain þe winde” and is a relatively simple translation into modern English. The visual of smoke against the wind compared to the significantly outnumbered army - provides decent context to interpret the phrase as a figurative statement about attempting something futile, impossible, or - at the very least - extremely difficult. Oxford English Dictionary identifies this text in its references for the phrase.

The phrase beating the wind or beat against the air and variants shows up in print around the same time.

One early reference is found in Select English works of John Wycliffe Vol. 2. Sermons on the serial Gospels and Sunday epistles; Treatises written around 1375-1384.


Certis Y renne, not as in uncerteyne; Y fiȝt so not as betinge þe eir; but Y chastise my body bi resoun, and brynge it into servyse to my soule, lest þat, whanne Y preche to oþer, Y mysilf be maad reprovable.

Certis I run, not as in uncertain; I fight so not as beating the air;

but I chastise my body by reason and bring it into service to my soul,

lest that, when I preach to others, I myself be made reprovable.

End quote;view=fulltext

This writing refers to Paul and discusses certainty and purpose in how one lives. This makes it possible to recognize the figurative meaning of “beating the air”.

These references are incredibly old. We are rarely able to find or access texts from this timeframe. This particular work was accessed via the Corpus of Middle English Prose and Verse, made available online through the Library at the University of Michigan. The site shares,


This collection of about 300 Middle English primary texts was assembled over more than two decades in order to provide a publicly accessible, cross-searchable sampling of Middle English from a widely diverse range of genres, times, and places.

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We have mad respect for word nerds who do the work to make texts like these available to the public.

Now, we have it established as early as the 1300s that the phrase is all about the air or the wind. But how did spit get here?


Now, there are a lot of theories around the web giving credit for the origin of this phrase to seafarers - likely sailors or pirates. And while, this is certainly always possible… it was a popular phrase in religious texts and was used in various forms… but perhaps seafarers brought spit into the picture for us. But since we don’t have an announcement from Blackbeard taking credit… we’ll have to wonder for now.

Oxford English Dictionary places spit into or against the wind at least as early as the 1500s.

However, we are going to look at an early attestation published in 1666 from The Spiritual Chymist; Or, Six Decads of Divine Meditations on Several Subjects. (Σατανα Νοηματα Satana Noemata: Or the Wiles of Satan, in a Discourse.) by William Spurstowe.


How vain then are the Cavils, with which Worldlings, like malicious Elimasses pervert the straight ways of God? And, how causeless are the Scorns which they pour forth upon those that walk in them? will they not at length (like the Drivel of those that spit against the Wind) return upon their own Faces? or like Arrows shot up against the Sun, fall upon those that undertake such vain attempts?

End quote

The 1753 work A Supplement to Mr. Chambers's Cyclopaedia Or, Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences by Ephraim Chambers shares the phrase with a Latin translation.


BEATING the wind, verberare contra ventum, was a practice in use in the antient method of trial by combat. If either of the combatants did not appear in the field at the time appointed, the other was to beat the wind, or make fo many flourishes with his weapon; by which he was intitled to all the advantages of a conqueror.

End quote

The Latin phrase "verberare contra ventum" translates to "to beat against the wind" or "to strike against the wind. However, I struggled to find solid evidence regarding the practice of beating the air as a means of establishing victory.

Benjamin Franklin was at times credited with coining this phrase. The Virginia advocate, out of Charlo

ttesville, Virginia, published a letter he’d written in their article Paine and Dr. Franklin in the July 2, 1830 edition.


When Paine was writing his infamous attacks on the Christian religion, he submitted a part of his manuscripts, to Dr. Franklin for his inspection and opinion. The following is the answer of that great philosopher and patriot:

"Dear Sir-I have read your manuscript with some attention. By the argument it contains against a particular Providence, though you allow a general Providence, you strike at the foundation of all religion. For without the belief of a Providence that takes cognizance of, guards and guides, and favors particular persons. there is no motive to worship a Deity, to fear his displeasure, or to pray for its protection. I will not enter into any discussion of your principles, though you may seem to desire it,--At present I shall only give you my opinion, that tho' your reasonings are subtle, and may prevail with some readers, you will not succeed so as to change the general sentiments of mankind on that subject; and the consequences of printing this piece will be, a great deal of odium drawn upon yourself, mischief to you, and no benefit to others. He that spits against the wind, spits in his own face.

End quote

Newspapers quoted Franklin’s use of the phrase quite a bit around this time, publishing the letter or portions of it but also merely using the phrase independently of the letter and crediting it to Franklin.

The daily phoenix, November 25, 1871, out of Columbia, South Carolina, shared a great example of this in an ad titled Goods Marked Down, at Goodman’s Clothing Bazaar.


Where money is scarce, wages low, trade is generally dull. This condition of things suggests economy, and people begin to look for bargains. Such being the case in this city, we have concluded to


All goods from their original prices to such low figures as will merit the exigencies of the times.

To those in want of Ready-Made CLOTHING. Hats and Gents’ Furnishing Goods, we say consult your own interest and give us a call, are purchasing elsewhere; and don’t forget that Franklin has said: "He that spits against the wind, spits in his own face."

End quote

Moving forward, the phrase has predominantly been used as spitting into the wind, however beating the wind remains a popular alternative.

Alright, we’re ready for our modern uses, right after we say thank you to our sponsors.

A Quick Thank You

This episode is sponsored by our amazing Patrons on Patreon. And the cool thing about Patreon is it is 100% free to join the Bunny Trails community!

We have new things every weekday on the feeds, including a conversation about what everyone is reading, early access to the show, patron’s only polls, and our behind the scenes video which always includes a little about our week before the show and a cool feature after the show.

We’ve got some other pretty cool stuff, too, like Original Digital Artwork once a month, made by Shauna, and awesome name recognition like Pat Rowe gets every episode. And our top spot is currently occupied by the amazing Mary Halsig Lopez.

You can join the Bunny Trails community for free at bunnytrailspod on Patreon.


Modern Uses

Spitting in the Wind is a framed print by JC. The print is of a photograph. It is black and white and has a sort of forced perspective aspect to it. The focus is on the shadow of the man in the image. It may take a moment for viewers to recognize that the subject of the photo is even in the image. It is an interesting image. The piece is available on

The article “Spitting in the Wind” at Oceanside Museum of Art by Robert L. Pincus was published by ARTnews on November 3, 2014.


This exhibition focused on a moment in San Diego art history that is of far more than local interest. Assembled by freelance curator Dave Hampton, it brought together four artists whose careers were closely intertwined during the 1960s. John Baldessari is renowned as a pivotal figure in the rise of Conceptual Art. Richard Allen Morris has enjoyed a well-deserved career surge, particularly in Europe. Robert Matheny and the late Russell Baldwin have never garnered similar attention, but were just as vital to a small but dynamic art scene in San Diego during that era.

End quote

The article goes on to share,


The title of this show derives from an observation by Baldessari: “A lot of what we did was spitting in the wind.” But, as it turns out, a lot wasn’t.

End quote

Don't forget to spit into the wind | Cartoon for May 16 was published online May 13, 2015 to the Opinion section of the Bothell-Kenmore Reporter. It is signed Shiers, Jr. The comic depicts a man in a kayak speaking with a man on the shore. The man in the kayak speaks first,





End quote

You Don’t Mess Around With Jim is a 1972 folk-rock song by Jim Croce. The song contains our phrase in the chorus. Here are some of the lyrics,


… Uptown got its hustlers

The Bowery got its bums

42nd Street got big Jim Walker

He a pool-shootin' son of a gun

Yeah, he big and dumb as a man can come

But he stronger than a country hoss

And when the bad folks all get together at night

You know they all call big Jim "Boss", just because

And they say

… "You don't tug on Superman's cape

You don't spit into the wind

You don't pull the mask off that old Lone Ranger

And you don't mess around with Jim"

End quote

Don't Spit in the Wind is a Comic mini series from Mad Cave by Writer & Artist: Stefano Cardoselli and Colorist & Letterer: Dan Lee. It was published March 29, 2023.


Since the earth became inhospitable, a crew of garbage men have been tasked with cleaning up mountains of toxic waste. After descending deep inside a nuclear facility to search for a missing crew member, Rodriguez and Boy find evidence that the crew has been killed by an unknown predator. Meanwhile, Travis is trying to survive his own encounter with a swarm of locusts!

End quote

Official trailer


Wrap up:

This phrase is so descriptive. You only have to think about it for a moment to understand its meaning. Just ask yourself, what will happen if I spit into the wind? It’s likely not going to work out the way you think it will. I love that this phrase has been around for about 700 years - at least - and doesn’t seem like it will be going anywhere. It carries wisdom but sounds just a tad impolite. I’m not sure if that’s what makes it humorous… or maybe I’m just immature.


That’s about all we have for today. If you have any thoughts on the show, or pop culture references we should have included,

reach out to us on Patreon, or comment on our website


It’s patron poll time!

Recently we posed this question to our Patrons:

When you travel for pleasure, where do you prefer to stay?

The winner by a longshot was a traditional Motel or Hotel , followed by AirBNB or VRBO type place.


Coming in distant third and beyond were Bed and Breakfast, Camping or Glamping, Hostel or a small, local hotel, and maybe most surprisingly a Resort Location.


I’ll admit that I didn’t vote because I don’t know that I have a preference. I like all of these places for different reasons. My favorite stay was probably at a hotel in Heredia in Costa Rica. But honestly, it’s all about the people and the place I’m visiting. If it’s safe, clean, and fun… or quiet… or near the beach… or in the rainforest… or within walking distance of the museums I want to visit… or has really great amenities… or has an amazing view… the rest doesn’t really matter that much.

Jan said,


I'm staying in the Midland Railroad Hotel in Wilson as I type this (for work though). Awesome place.

If it's just my wife and I on a trip - hotel. If it's us and the kids, an AirBnB just for space purposes. Best AirBNB I've stayed at was an oil baron's mansion in Enid, OK - Champlin Mansion. Fancy and wasn't very expensive. Ballydougan in Northern Ireland is a close second, but it's more of an independent farm/cottage/pottery destination.

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As a reminder, our silly polls mean absolutely nothing and are not scientifically valid. But Patrons of all levels get to take part. Head over to to take this week’s poll!



Thanks for joining us. We’ll talk to you again next week. Until then remember,


Words belong to their users.

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