Where does the word “cuspidor” come from and What does cuspidor mean in Spanish?

The “spit-box” and the “spittoon” were known early in the past century, the former usually containing sand or sawdust and more or less immovable, and the latter of earthenware or metal, small enough to be cleaned from time to time.

They were reasonably necessary adjuncts to a saloon or club frequented by men who chewed tobacco.

The euphemistic cuspidor (variantly spelled cuspidore, cuspadore) has had a vague and largely unrecorded history.

The mighty Oxford English Dictionary has been able to trace its use to 1779, but the manner in which it was then used implies that it was already a well-known term.

No further printed use has been recorded until 1871, when one Eugene A. Heath patented an “Improvement in Cuspadores (Cuspidores)” in both the United States and England.

No dictionary printed in the interim includes the word, but Bartlett’s Dictionary of Americanisms, 4th ed., published in 1877, does so.

Since six years is usually much too short a time for a term not already in common use to become entered in a dictionary, there is a strong implication that it existed in the intervening century in the spoken, if not in the written, language.

The derivation is commonly ascribed to the Portuguese cuspir, “to spit” (cuspidor, “one who spits”), from the Latin conspuere, “to spit into,” but Mencken also notes a Dutch word, kwispedoor, or kwispeldoor, “a cuspidor,” which he suggests may be the source of our English form.

Only in Spanish do we find a close cognate which is probably also of the same common origin, escupidera.

About Karen Hill

Karen Hill is a freelance writer, editor, and columnist. Born in New York, her work has appeared in the Examiner, Yahoo News, Buzzfeed, among others.

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