The word "spot" comes from the Old English spot, meaning "a small round mark," according to Google. The sense of "a particular place" came about probably as a result of the related Old English noun splott, meaning a patch of land; this, according to Etymonline. According to the same source, the metaphorical use of the term to mean "a moral stain" was in use by the late 1300's. I rather like the dual use of the term 300 years or so later, in Shakespeare's Macbeth : "Out, damned spot!" as she refers to the blood stain on her hand, but which I suspect also means her guilt as a murderer.

As a verb, "spot" can mean "to mark with a stain" ( spoten ) and by 1718 could also mean "to see or recognize." Interestingly, a modern use of "spot" is "to remove a stain," such as before dry cleaning, at least according to; this would make it a contranym, meaning a word which has acquired its opposite meaning, though I did not find it in any lists of common contranyms. Of course, I only searched for 20 minutes or so, so perhaps there is more solid evidence of this use of the word.

One type of spotted cat is, of course, the leopard, from the Greek leon, "lion," and pardos, a male panther. It seems fitting to me that the definition can be divided into what we consider two separate animals, much as the spotted nature of something implies that it consists of separate parts, and is thus somehow impure, or perhaps diseased – think of how we use "spotted" when describing various diseases, due to the accompanying rash, such as "spotted fever" which was in use by the 1640s. Diana was the Roman goddess of the hunt, and as such she was associated with wild animals – often by the portrayal of hunting dogs, and not so much predatory cats, although she was also considered to be the goddess of domestic animals, to which I would consider the housecat to be definitely a member; Bacchus, by contrast, a god associated with revelry and excess, was specifically shown with leopards in paintings such as Titian's Bacchus and Ariadne; his maenads, or female followers, were known to tear men apart in their frenzy. One might contrast this sort of 'hunting' by man with the more tempered kind which I described in my previous essay on the word "religion."

The dual nature of a leopard being a "lion-panther" is echoed in time by the Egyptian goddess Bast, or Bastet, who was originally portrayed with the head of a lion, but was later depicted with the head of a cat, thus changing her emphasis from that of a war-like deity to one of fertility. Greeks in the Ptolemaic period often identified her with Artemis, i.e., their form of the goddess Diana.

The phrase "a leopard can't change his spots" means that a person cannot change his personality. It comes originally from the book of Jeremiah, 13:23 : "Can an Ethiopian change his skin, or a leopard his spots?" Perhaps I should think of Lady MacBeth's exclamation in the light of this biblical passage.

The phrase "a black spot" is associated with pirates. It indicates the marking of an individual for imminent death. Presumably Robert Louis Stevenson came up with the phrase in his 1881 serialization of Treasure Island, though Lennox and Scoott (both authors of books of trivia) speculate that Stevenson derived it from the tradition of pirates in the Caribbean showing an ace of spades to one of their fellows as a way of proclaiming them a traitor. This follows because the word "spot" is sometimes used for the word "pip," which is the name for a suit designator on a playing card – in bridge, a non-face card is known as a "spot card," and so the ace of spades is a card with one pip on it, or one "black spot." Other novelists subsequently using the phrase include P.G. Wodehouse in Joy in the Morning, and Harlan Ellison in Lonelyache (a short story).

The term "Johnny on the Spot" became popular in 1896 according to an article from that period in the New York Sun appropriately headlined "JOHNNY ON THE SPOT A New Phrase Which Has Become Popular in New York." It refers to someone who is conveniently present right when they are needed to rectify a situation. I sometimes wonder if the newspaper author invented the phrase himself, and then caused it to become famous (at the time) by simply proclaiming it to be so in print, which would be an interesting example of what I would define as Spontaneous Linguistic Generation : a neologism (i.e., a new word or phrase) invented in such a way such that it is widely propagated as a result. Alas, the oxford english dictionary also mentions the phrase in use during the same year in George Ade's first novel, Artie, and so my supposition is unlikely to be true.

In printing terminology, "spot color" means a color created during a single run, in contrast to "process color" which means a color made by using dots of different colors. According to the well-known authority "unclebun," the term derives from the idea that originally the "spot color" was always black, until eventually people wanting to spice things up would add a few other colors "in a spot, here and there." Personally, I would always trust an authority known as unclebun. After all, I trust myself, "oddwritings," so why not trust unclebun? Hmm. Suddenly I am not feeling so sure about my sources.

Treasure Island comes up yet again in that the phrase "sweet spot" occurs in that book (at least, in the 1883 printing) by the pirate Long John Silver. However, he uses the term in the sense of being a location agreeable to the senses, such as an island. The modern usage of the term, meaning that something is "just right" or results in an optimal amount of pleasure, presumably comes from sports. In baseball, batters would refer to the part of the bat that gave them the most power when hitting the ball as the "sweet spot." Golfers sometimes claim that their sport came up with the phrase, citing a 1957 article in the New York Times; and not to be outdone, people in the oil industry (presumably, the golfers among them) can point out that the plot of the 1941 novel by Hartzell Spence called Radio City contains a fictional oil company named Sweetspot Oil, which means that they claim priority on the phrase. Let's hope that people don't come to blows over this on the green.

Author's Note : this essay will appear in my upcoming book, My Cat Breaks Into Vowels, which is available for pre-order.

Sources :, accessed on 2024-03-05, accessed on 2024-03-05, accessed on 2024-03-05, accessed on 2024-03-04, accessed on 2024-03-05, accessed on 2024-03-05, accessed on 2024-03-06, accessed on 2024-03-04., accessed on 2024-03-05, accessed on 2024-03-05, accessed on 2024-03-04., accessed on 2024-03-05, accessed on 2024-03-06, accessed on 2024-03-05, accessed on 2024-03-04, accessed on 2024-03-06, accessed on 2024-03-05, accessed on 2024-03-05