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metaphors--mangled or morphing?

In Chandler's Daughter, the first Lexy Connor mystery novel, one of the clues is a photo of someone who bears a striking resemblance to another character in the book. Lexy says that it is a "spitting image." 

Or at least, that's what she says after my editor changed it.

The term "spitting image" actually morphed from "spit and image" (which some people still said when I was a child), and that in turn had morphed from a much earlier "spirit and image," which explains what is really a fairly weird expression. Spitting image?

Anyway, as I was writing it, I was aware of these three possibilities, all of which my character would be aware of, too, and wondered which one I should use. "Spirit and image" was going to be too obscure for a modern audience--some of my readers might not see the relationship to the current expression, but I decided finally that "spit and image" trod the delicate line between pedantry and style.

When the book was published, I suddenly noticed that it had become "spitting image." That was okay with me, because I could have gone either way in the first place. It wasn't until I was reading another book by another author but edited by the same editor and saw "spit and image" that I decided I could needle her about it.

The point of all of that is that "canned" expressions alter over time, usually as a result of propagation of an error in hearing something. This process is a legitimate part of language development (although it is sometimes painful when it is happening) and once something has fully evolved, like "spitting image," it is as valid as its ancestors. Indeed, "spitting image" is a meaningful expression today, whereas "spirit and image" might well cause readers to scratch their heads in bewilderment.

But (there's always a "but," isn't there!), until that final surge to respectability has taken place, it is still regarded as a slipup to use one of those expressions that is on the move; here are some of them:

 

Tow the line.
It's "toe the line." Yes, I know there were barges that were pulled along the Erie Canal with ropes, but this line is the one that shows where you are supposed to be standing.
Hone in on.
"Home in on," not "hone." Think of a bombardier positioning the crosshairs on the target. 
If you think that, you have another thing coming.
It's "another think" coming.
 

 

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