Whether we are drooling on our parents as infants or spitting on our enemies when we are old enough to know better, the presence of saliva is generally met with distaste, with several theories debating why the act of spitting in particular is considered so vile.
Discouraged in the 19th century during a tuberculosis epidemic it was a spreader of disease, spit has a long history of being utterly disgusting. In Shakespeare’s eponymous play, Timon of Athens’s exclaims that his enemy is not “clean enough to spit upon”. While in 2018 football star Jamie Carragher was derided for spitting during an angry outburst. If the Bard and online comments are to be believed, abuse and degradation ”doesn't get lower than spitting”(BBC).
However, Margaret Atwood quips that “pearls are congealed oyster spit”, and despite this material being 98% water and sometimes repulsive, it is a gift in the right context.
For one, it gives life its flavour. Food scientist Cordelia A. Running from Purdue University describes saliva as “the chemical media of the mouth”, binding flavour compounds in food to taste receptors”. Through saliva, the primal task of eating is transformed into an opportunity for creativity, whimsy and social interaction.
And although not typically romantic, new studies suggest spit is at least lustful. According to Helen Fisher at Rutgers University "saliva has testosterone in it [which] increases sex drive…and there is evidence that men like sloppier kisses… suggesting they are unconsciously trying to transfer testosterone to stimulate sex drive in women”. “Sloppy” they may be, enjoyable none the less.
Spit not only facilitates our healing, growing, reproducing and dying, it documents it. One droplet can create an entire DNA portrait allowing companies such as “23 and Me” to trace a customer’s ancestry to the distant past through a saliva sample sent in by post.
From helping our organs grow in infant hood, to using the saliva of bats to treat stroke patients, this substance is both a tool for survival as well as joy. And as our knowledge of genetics and fascination with bioengineering develops, it may hold the ticket to our future as much as our past.