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Us Against Phlegm

The quest to discover why men spit so much

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I'm stopped at a traffic light, and a guy in the next car rolls down his window, sucks in a rumbling snort and unapologetically hocks up a wet loogie onto the street just as I take a sip of my sugar-free skinny caramel macchiato.

Sigh. Another morning begins with an up-close-and-personal view of some stranger's upper respiratory excretions. Why, oh why do men think the rest of us need to look at, step in and experience their body fluids?

The fact is that men spit, and they spit a lot, for no other reason than they can. They don't seem to get that it's disgusting, unsanitary and certainly unattractive to most everyone around them.

Everyone knows that both sexes will spit during high intensity workouts so they can breathe. What we are talking about here is the phenomena of men and boys standing around spitting and hocking, anytime, anywhere, just because they want to.

Do men spit because they produce more saliva than women? Do they have worse postnasal drip? Is there anything in the medical literature that would explain, even remotely, a physiological reason for men to chuck wads on a regular basis?

I called and left messages for several local otolaryngologists, or ear, nose and throat doctors, but none were eager or even willing to discuss why men spit so much. In a search of hundreds of documents and Web sites, I couldn't find even one authoritative reference that supported a physical reason for men to spit more than women.

Robert S. McCarl, a professor in the department of sociology at Boise State, noted that from a cultural perspective, ritual spitting—what guys do while standing on the corner—could be a way that males establish their territories.

"Spitting is more than just something coming out of the mouth. It's a way to appear stronger and mark your space," he said. "Males are more concerned about turf than women are. You get a group of males together, and there is a lot of posturing going on."

McCarl said that kids standing around aggressively spitting can be compared to those who paint graffiti or peel out in a fast car. "It's basically them throwing down a challenge. It's a way of saying, 'this is my space and I'm marking it.'"

On a more spiritual side, McClure said that the subliminal power associated with spitting might also be traced back to medieval times when a sneeze or other vigorous expectoration from the mouth was linked with the soul. The belief that a sneeze could thrust a man's soul from his body and also expel evil spirits led to the ritual of saying "bless you." Things coming out of the mouth were thought to be quite potent.

As McClure noted, men have spit from the beginning of time. In the Middle Ages, spitting at meals was permitted, provided it was under the table and not on or across it. Fast forward to the 18th century, when records indicate spitting remained commonplace. ("You should not abstain from spitting, and it is very ill mannered to swallow what should be spat," according to etiquette of 1729.) The real campaigns against public spitting and the disposal of sputum seem to have started in the 1880s, driven by concerns about tuberculosis.

Enter the spittoon, a fabulous little invention that allowed men to chew tobacco and then fling the brownish spit into a little brass bucket. The spittoon allowed men to pretty much expectorate wherever and whenever they needed to.

But even the spittoon couldn't tame the manly mess. After visiting the U.S. Congress in 1842, Charles Dickens wrote in his "American Notes for General Circulation" that Washington, D.C., was "the head-quarters of tobacco-tinctured saliva.

"Both houses are handsomely carpeted; but the state to which these carpets are reduced by the universal disregard of the spittoon ... and the extraordinary improvements on the pattern which are squirted and dabbled upon in every direction ... do not admit of being described," he wrote. "Strangers should be wary of picking up any article from the floor with an ungloved hand."

They don't call 'em the Boise Hawks for nothing

Tennis players, ice skaters and ballet dancers don't spit in their playing area, but watch a baseball game, and you will see saliva flying from beginning to end.

Why?

"That's a good question," laughed Ken Hyde, director of marketing for the Boise Hawks baseball team, who agreed there definitely is more spitting in baseball than other sports. "I don't know if they're burning off nervous energy or what."

Hyde said that while Hawks players do hock their share of phlegm, they also spit a lot of sunflower seeds, which sometimes are mistaken for saliva. He emphasized that the use of chewing tobacco during a minor league game is strictly against the rules, although the majors still give it a wink and a nod.

Does he think that baseball spitting has roots in McCarl's theory of projecting toughness?

"It's the male brain," he said. "You do want to project an aura of control out there. Although it's also pretty dusty and gritty on the field, too, so they could be clearing their airways, too."

the wide world of spits

We Americans are not traveling down this slippery slope of saliva-slinging alone. Anyone who has gone to China knows that when they hear that guttural throat-clearing rumble, they'd better move out of the way. The Chinese—both men and women in this case—have no hesitation when it comes to letting a wad fly, anywhere, anytime, whether they are indoors or out.

Sha Lianxiang, a psychologist at the Humanistic Olympics Studies Center, said that many Chinese refuse to swallow their spit because they believe mucus is poisonous.

"When I was young my parents told me that if I swallowed my spit, it would turn into a worm in my stomach," she said in a story in the Canadian National Post newspaper.

With the 2008 Summer Olympics going to Beijing, the Chinese government began to worry that visitors might not enjoy navigating the minefield of body fluids. So, it launched a campaign to persuade citizens to change their spitting habits. Paper sanitary bags with the Chinese symbol for "mucus" are being distributed for people to spit into, and anyone who chucks on a sidewalk will either have to clean up the mess or cough up a fine.

On the other side of the world in Dundee, Scotland, author Nichola Feeney e-mailed to say that spitting Scotsmen are on the rise, and she can no longer swallow her disgust.

"Just yesterday, I walked past a man who snorted through his nose, hocked something back in his throat then curled his tongue up to get a better line of flight for the monstrous greener he gobbed out onto the pavement," Feeney described.

Boise City public code states that spitting is a misdemeanor but only when done in public water fountains, or on the floor, wall, ceiling, furniture, fixtures or equipment inside any building used by the public. You may, however, spit indoors if done in a toilet, cuspidor, spittoon or other receptacle specifically designed for expectorate or spit.

Unfortunately, it seems that expectoration as a leisure pastime is on the rise in our fair city, as well as most cities around the world, and wishing for its total eradication is like, well, spitting into the wind.

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