Q From Ian Callaghan: Any idea as to the origin of the expression spitting feathers? I know it means being thirsty and also being angry.
A My reference works only list it in the sense of somebody being extremely agitated, most usually because they’re as angry as hell (as a result of which they might instead be spitting blood, a phrase that’s clearly a close relative).
Spitting feathers became common in British slang in the nineties and these days often turns up in newspapers and books. An example from the politically and linguistically conservative Daily Telegraph newspaper for 28 February 2002 shows how it is used: “Edify is working on software which responds to the pitch and tone of a telephone caller’s voice so that, if a complainant is spitting feathers, they can be transferred to a human who can calm them down”. In recent years — as my Daily Telegraph example shows — it has been turning up in everywhere, though it seems to have a particular connection with TV, pop music and related fields and is more a favourite of the down-market tabloids than the broadsheets.
Several writers have put forward suggestions as to how such a phrase might have arisen. The image, they say, could be that of somebody so angry that they’re foaming at the mouth, spitting flecks of sputum, which might be compared to feathers. Tony Thorne, in his Dictionary of Contemporary Slang (1997) says firmly that the phrase instead refers to any “extreme enthusiasm or agitation”, that it “probably evokes the squawking of a frantic bird”, and that the image came from the armed forces.
All such suggestions were rendered suspect when I discovered from many comments by subscribers that the phrase has in fact long been known in the sense of being thirsty. Ruth Barlow wrote: “I’m from Lancashire (perhaps it makes a difference) and I only know this expression to mean very thirsty. It’s certainly older than 10-15 years, too — I’m rapidly heading to my 50s now and it was in common use when I was a small child in the early 1960s”. Jo Sidebottom agrees: “My mother (Cheshire by background) has used the expression I think for as long as I can remember (I’m in my forties) to mean very thirsty — usually for a ‘nice cup of tea’. When I read your comments, I wondered if she had been using it mistakenly, but I checked with my partner, whose parents are from Yorkshire, and without any prompting from me he gave exactly the same answer: it means very thirsty or parched and it’s been around for at least several decades. Maybe it’s a northern expression which only caught on in the south or nationwide more recently (possibly from a soap opera?) but the meaning was misunderstood?“
This seems very likely. It seems improbable that two identical expressions arose with such different meanings. People heard it who didn’t know its true meaning, made a false association with spitting blood, and changed the sense.
Where it came from is suggested by Charles Wilson, whose childhood was spent in the southern USA: “I have often heard the expression, ‘I’m so thirsty I feel like I have a mouthful of feathers’, which strikes me as wonderfully descriptive”. Alice Battles and Joel Showalter mentioned “spitting cotton”, another way of expressing dryness once common in the American south, which is clearly a related idea.