titbit, tidbit

I am aware that today’s word – titbit, also spelled tit-bit – may cause my emails of this tasting note to snag in some people’s spam filters. And I suspect that that may have a little something to do with the North American preference for tidbit to titbit. It is not, of course, that the British do not use the word tit for ‘breast’; it’s more that they use it for some other things that North Americans don’t really use it for and so it doesn’t have as naked an association. Also, the British seem to be on average a little less bothered by bare breasts, as witness their presence on page 3 of some tabloid newspapers (in North America, where there are page 3 girls at all, they are never utterly topless).

But it’s not that the word titbit was transformed by nervousness or prudishness into tidbit. Indeed, both forms of the word are time honoured, even though the crisper rhyming version seems to be preferred in Britain as the voice-assimilated version is preferred in North America. Indeed, the ultimate origin of the word could be from one or the other, so we can’t make a flat statement about which comes first. The cleavage between the words traces right back to our earliest attestations.

What we know for certain is that in the 1600s there were both tyd bit and tit-bit, and in both cases it referred to toothsome morsels of food (as OED puts it). We know where the bit part comes from; it was originally something bitten or bitten off – a little mouthful, say. As to the first half, it could come from an Old English word tidre ‘fragile, weak’ or dialectal tid ‘fond, fanciful, playful’ or tyd ‘wanton’. Or it could come from tit. But which tit? There are, it turns out, a fair handful of tits to choose from.

The one that we should grab hold of from our lexical treasure chest in this case refers to a small animal, first of all a small horse but thereafter several kinds of bird, including titmice, titlings, titlarks, tom-tits, coal tits, bearded tits (!) and – I just love this, because I’ve seen it used with straight face in the title of an ornithological paper – great tits, which might seem an oxymoron like jumbo shrimp, given that the point of calling them tits is that they’re small.

And what is the etymology of these small tits? In Canada, we might think right away of Québecois French ’tite, which is short for petite and is pronounced like “tit” (actually a bit like “tsit”). But while this may look good, there is no evident connection; indeed, this word has cognates in the Scandinavian languages, such as dialectal Norwegian titta ‘little girl’ and tita ‘little fish, little kernel, little ball’.

While we’re at this word buffet, though, let us sample some of the other great etymological titbits (gah, my MS Word just autocorrected it to tidbits and I had to go back and fix it) that titbit leads us to: the other kinds of tits out there. Tit can mean (in Scots dialect) a sharp pull or jerk; it can be the first part of tit for tat, which appears to come from tip for tap; it can be a little loose piece of metal in nail-making or drilling; it can be used (or at least was at one time) to call a cat, as in Dickens’s Pickwick Papers: “It must have been the cat, Sarah,’ said the girl… ‘Puss, puss, puss – tit, tit, tit’”; it can be a nincompoop or twit, as in “Shut your festering gob, you tit”; or, of course, it can be a teat: a boob, a knocker, a hooter, a tata, a gazonga, whatever you want to call it.

It’s always fun to come across a word with such a little pearl necklace of different meanings – it’s like a tasting menu of lexical titbits. Or tidbits. But now, which sounds tastier or smaller to you, titbit or tidbit? The first is crisper, but the second has a certain sapidity, a sound like niblet, maybe. Ah well, you don’t really get to choose anyway: the way it is now, you’re pretty much consigned to one or the other by where you’re writing for. And you have to be careful, because if you use the British one in North America you might unleash some unexpected titters.

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