Writing Spitballs into the Future


Do you know the all the many meanings of the word spitball? How does it apply to psychiatry?

paper airplane



In responding to a beloved colleague who was inspired to write even more than usual recently, I wrote back that the world seems to be spit balling down and apart, and psychiatry seemed to be frozen in response. Actually, spit balling was some sort of slip of the computer mouse. I thought that I had intended to write spiraling down and apart. I do not know if the slip was mine or the computer’s, but it seemed telling.

Freud’s ideas on slips of the tongue predate computers and convey that slipping up on a consciously chosen word or words revealed something in our unconscious pushing to become conscious. So let’s assume that “spit balling” fit that possibility. What was I spit balling?

In a discussion about “We’re Just Spitballing Here . . .”, Merriam-Webster goes over the history of the word spitball. It dates the use to June 30th (the wedding day of my wife and I), 1794, when a shopkeeper advertised that he was selling a spitball, meaning then a blackening of shoes. By the 1830s, it was used as a way I knew and occasionally used growing up, spitball as a “paper chewed and rolled into a ball to be thrown or shot as a missile.” In the 20th century, baseball pitchers discovered the spitball pitch by adding a little saliva to a baseball to cause unusual movement when it was thrown to the batter. The new sense of spitball is to “to suggest ideas, especially those that are jocular, improbable, or impractical.”

Given that my recent spit balling was unconscious, it probably came from my childhood, where I got into some school behavioral problems. I was not alone with shooting the occasional spitball. Only boys did it, for which a Freudian interpretation might suggest some sort of psychosexual phallic meaning.

Even more than spitballs, I liked to fly paper airplanes, which I am reminded of every day with the icon used to send out an email on my Apple computer. Like a paper airplane, you never know where an e-mail may go once it is sent out.

Whether it is my childhood or adult use of spitball, here is where I would like some of them to land:

  • The Goldwater Rule and its tightening in 2017, because it inhibits psychiatrists from publicly discussing public figures who may be dangerous to the public, and in general casts an inhibition on political commentary
  • For-profit managed care systems, which often put profits over patient care1
  • Anyone who scapegoats and blames others, like in racism and anti-Semitism, instead of soul-searching their own problems

What figurative or literal spitballs have you thrown or would like to throw?

Dr Moffic is an award-winning psychiatrist who specialized in the cultural and ethical aspects of psychiatry and is now in retirement and retirement as a private pro bono community psychiatrist. A prolific writer and speaker, he has done a weekday column titled “Psychiatric Views on the Daily News” and a weekly video, “Psychiatry & Society,” since the COVID-19 pandemic emerged. He was chosen to receive the 2024 Abraham Halpern Humanitarian Award from the American Association for Social Psychiatry. Previously, he received the Administrative Award in 2016 from the American Psychiatric Association, the one-time designation of being a Hero of Public Psychiatry from the Speaker of the Assembly of the APA in 2002, and the Exemplary Psychiatrist Award from the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill in 1991. He is an advocate and activist for mental health issues related to climate instability, physician burnout, and xenophobia. He is now editing the final book in a 4-volume series on religions and psychiatry for Springer: Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, Christianity, and now The Eastern Religions, and Spirituality. He serves on the Editorial Board of Psychiatric Times.


1. Moffic HS. The Ethical Way: Challenges & Solutions for Managed Behavioral Healthcare. Jossey-Bass; 1997.

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