It’s not often that you hear someone say they don’t know if they should spit or go blind, but when someone uses that expression, what they’re really saying is that they’re confused about what they should say or do next. Of course, the question begs to be asked: Who exactly uses that kind of language and where did the expression come from in the first place?
On March 14, 2012 a new entry was published in the series discussing digital formats, sampling rates, and more on the audiophile-musings blog. It was a condensed yet comprehensive piece that made the subject easier to understand for those who didn’t work in the music industry. Midway through the entry, the following was written:
Musicians, producers, and audiopphiles alike are all about to “spit or go blind” when it comes to the future of digital audio. The Blu-Ray disc, with its infancy in 2002, created a storage medium exactly the same physical size as the CD but with over 7 times the storage capacity. Now that’s what I’m talking about!
Almost a generation before that, Reg Silvester wrote an article for the Edmonton Journal that was published in their September 17, 1980 edition. The article, entitled “Choreopoem Reaches Out Across All Barriers” reviewed a theater performance at the Rice Theatre. The review began with this:
Every so often, somebody comes at you with something from a cultural or social base so strange that you don’t know whether to spit or go blind.
Now, 22 years before that (to the day) outfielder Harvey Kuenn was quoted as having said this about a home run hit by Mickey Mantle at Tiger Stadium:
I didn’t know whether to laugh, spit, or go blind!
The fact of the matter is that the expression doesn’t appear very often in newspaper articles or in literature before this, however, readers know for Harvey Kuenn to have used it so easily in 1958 that it was a recognized idiom of the day. This implies that it goes back at least to the generation previous pegging it at sometime in the 1920s.
That being said, the word blind has its own interesting history that gives a twist to the expression spit or go blind. The original sense of the word blind meant confused and not sightless, as attested to in the early 1600s. In fact, Geoffrey Chaucer (1300 – 25 October 1400) wrote “The Chanouns Yemanns Tale” (part of “The Canterbury Tales“) where the following passage using the word blind (blynde) is found:
Telle how he dooth, I pray thee hertely,
Syn that he is so crafty and so sly.
Wher dwelle ye, if it to telle be?”
“In the suburbes of a toun,” quod he,
“Lurkynge in hernes and in lanes blynde,
Where as thise robbours and thise theves by kynde
Holden hir pryvee fereful residence,
As they that dar nat shewen hir presence.
In this context, blind meant the alley was closed at one end (a dead end). By 1702, blind also meant anything that obstructed one’s sight, and thus the blind alley became one that was not only closed at one end, but beset by obstacles that prevented one from seeing to the end of the alley. Ergo, if things were blocked from sight, it left people blinded (albeit temporarily).
As a secondary side note to this first side note, it should be noted that on September 19, 1702 Jupiter occulted Neptune from the Earth (such planet occultations being extremely rare according to astronomers). While some use the words occulted, eclipsed and transited interchangeably, there are very set differences between the three conditions.
An eclipse happens when an object moves into another object’s shadow (you can sometimes still see both objects).
A transit happens when an object passes in front of another (but does not obstruct the view of the planet).
An occult is when an object is completely hidden from view because the object passing before it lies directly in one’s line of sight.
So, yes, on September 19, 1702, Jupiter blinded people on Earth … but only if they hoped to see Neptune that night!
Getting back to the expression spit or go blind, that exact expression (as previously mentioned) can be tagged to the 1920s but Idiomation was unable to take it back any further. However, it appears that the expression was about 200 (if you go with 1702) or 300 (if you go with 1610) years in the making before it was first used.