The word Doppelgänger used to mean so much more! Nowadays if someone is merely the spitting image of someone else, they are called Doppelgängers. Spitting image? I’ll come to that later…
Some newspapers still have a “separated at birth” feature, in which readers suggest someone looks like someone else and often the captions are swapped over to reinforce the joke.
But originally Doppelgänger‘s meaning was quite different. It was one of those German words that came into English to serve for a concept we maybe didn’t have before.
It literally means “double-goer” and refers to a person’s double or a wraith. There is a traditional belief that if you meet a physical or ghostly copy of yourself it is very bad luck or a warning of impending death.
No wonder the young lovers in Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s “How They Met Themselves” look so appalled.
It’s a concept in many cultures and Wikipedia has several examples of famous people’s encounters with Doppelgängers, notably the romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley – apparently his wife Mary Shelley (of Frankenstein fame) wrote after his death in July 1822 that he claimed to have met his own double.
One of my favourite fantastic artists, Sulamith Wϋlfing (1901-1989), was German, so it’s not surprising her work often features strange, spiritual encounters.
In her painting called “Meeting” there is surely a suggestion that the four little children are not long for this world, as their own ghosts drift by. I am reminded of the saying about “someone walking on your grave” – that feeling of an inexplicable chill on the back of the neck.
Of course today most of us are familiar with the idea of meeting yourself, from the many science fiction books, TV series and movies on the themes of time travel or alternate universes.
Usually when you go back in time you try to avoid encountering yourself as it may change the past and your earlier self may do something silly to prevent your future self existing after all, which is always a bit of a paradox.
Sci-fi technologies such as teleportation can also often spawn copies of people, and it has become a bit of a cliché, probably going back to Doppelgänger‘s mythical roots, that the double is usually evil.
Star Trek has done this many times through all its incarnations and often it’s the result of a teleporter accident or a slip into an alternate universe.
From Star Trek: The Original Series I recall “The Enemy Within” , where Kirk fights with an evil double after a teleporter accident and “Mirror, Mirror”, where a transporter malfunction sends Kirk, McCoy, Scotty, and Uhura into a parallel universe where the Federation is replaced by an evil Empire.
In Star Trek: The Next Generation Riker also meets himself as the result of a transporter phenomenon in the episode called “Second Chances”.
Then in the Star Trek: Voyager episode “Faces” the doubling is done genetically when the Vidiians capture B’Elanna Torres and split her into two people, one fully Klingon and one fully human. Actually I guess these aren’t strictly doubles, more like halves.
So that was Doppelgänger. Another similarly misused term is the Latin alter ego (meaning “other I”). It’s not your double or lookalike, but a role you play, or you in disguise, a different you. So for example Superman is Clark Kent’s alter ego, Batman is Bruce Wayne’s, Spiderman is Peter Parker’s – and Mr Hyde is Dr Jekyll’s alter ego.
Just like Doppelgänger, alter ego has now come to mean the same as avatar in the virtual world. It’s your other self online. Avatar means the descent of a Hindu deity in physical form, an incarnation (from Sanskrit ava, “away, down”, tar “to pass over”). Also read my blog post on English words from Indian roots…
As for spitting image? According to my Chambers Twentieth Century Dictionary (1980), it comes from “spit and image”. “Spit” means to spawn. The slang term is often “the dead spit” or “the very spit” of someone. In full, the slang phrase is “as like him as if he had spit him out of his mouth”.
My favourite example of a spitting image is Katy Perry and Zooey Deschanel – I just can’t believe how alike they are…