I posted a question about the idiomatic expression "spit bath" and it was removed for "off topic." Where and how can I pose this question on StackExchange?


2 Answers 2


One of the options available to users when voting to close a question is:

Contextless Etymology Question

Languages are always changing; words change their meanings and are borrowed between languages unpredictably. So questions asking for the origin of words or phrases are off-topic unless they demonstrate that there is a reasonable assumption of systematicity, by situating themselves within a historical context of language change or contact.

Your question seems to meet that criterion for being off-topic.

For English words and phrases (like yours), these are generally considered on-topic on the English Language & Usage site, and for many other major languages there are also other suitable StackExchange sites. For etymologies in less often discussed languages there is unfortunately not always a suitable site on StackExchange.


The real problem is that "idiomatic expressions" don't have etymologies. Words have etymologies, because there is a small number of them, and their histories can often be traced historically.

But phrases and clauses are innumerable. Literally. And if they're not compositional (i.e, if their meaning isn't obviously clear from their parts), then they're much more likely to be metaphors, and that's what you should be looking for.

Spit bath is a good example. It's not a bath, and it needn't involve real spit, but it's an intended cleaning action, and liquid is involved. Both spit and bath are metaphoric terms, and so is their combination.

So its meaning can be explained by metaphor analysis (read Lakoff and Johnson); its history is lost, however. You can look in the OED to find the first printed use of spit bath, but that certainly is much later than its first actual use in speech. It won't have been written down (especially in a dictionary) until everybody understood what was meant, and that this phrase was not literal, but was meaningful. That could be centuries, especially for anything naughty like spit.

  • "spit bath" seems like a compound to me, albeit one spelt separately. Univerbation seems to also suggest that the line between compounds and phrases is not fixed, so I don't think this is a good argument
    – Tristan
    Commented May 17, 2023 at 9:06
  • 1
    Phrases can still have etymologies, whether that's simply tracing their first uses, or whether they're calques from other languages etc.
    – curiousdannii Mod
    Commented May 19, 2023 at 2:52

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