Sunday, April 29, 2012

tidbits and titbits

I've been in blog-paralysis because everything I want to blog about would take a Very Long Time to write about and I'm supposed to be writing about other things. But along came Mrs Redboots on the Lynneguist Facebook page, making me blog by saying an oft-repeated falsehood about American English.  I don't mean to disrespect Mrs Redboots. Plenty of people believe this one. Even people who were educated at Cambridge and who are given Guardian podcasts to spout about American English. But I do mean to fight the misperception. So:

 Americans do not say tidbit because they would titter at BrE titbit.
 Americans say tidbit because that's the original form of the word.

It's a really easy one to blog about because I've said it before in the comments of another post, where another reader repeated the myth that tidbit arose from American prudishness. So I'll repeat myself here:
The original form of ti{d/t}bit is generally held to be tidbit from tid or tyd (special, choice) plus bit and goes back to the 1600s.
 To give the OED etymology for it (just so you know I'm not making this up!):
In 17th cent., tyd bit , tid-bit , < tid adj. + bit n.1; later also tit-bit , perhaps after compounds of tit n.3tid-bit is now chiefly N. Amer.
(Except that we North Americans don't put a hyphen in it. As we've seen before, the British like hyphens in compounds--or former compounds, as this may be considered--a lot more than Americans do. In the Corpus of Contemporary American English there is just one tidbit with a hyphen, compared to 217 without. But still, the 20-year-old British National Corpus has 6 hyphenated tit-bits to 27 titbits, so this 1989 OED version is in need of a spelling update.)

The 'perhaps after compounds of tit' part refers to things like titmouse or titlark. That particular tit refers to small things--so you can see how people might reanaly{s/z}e the word as meaning 'small morsel' rather than 'choice morsel' and change its pronunciation accordingly. Tid meaning 'tender, soft, nice' (as it was recorded in Johnson's Dictionary) was never all that common anyhow--it is assumed by later scholars that it was restricted to some dialect(s). It wasn't long after tid bit is first recorded in the OED (ca. 1642, but that isn't the first time it was used, of course) that the first instance of tit-bit shows up (1690), but it was a while before it took over completely in Britain. So, the more prevalent 17th-century form went to America, where it happily carried on, ignorant of the mutations happening in the family it left behind in England.

I'm going to restrain myself from going into the whole story of why this word came up in Mrs Redboots' and my conversation, as that was related to yesterday's Twitter Difference of the Day, and there's another blog post in that.  Look at me! Keeping it short!

Sunday, April 01, 2012

counting seconds

Layah wrote to me about a year ago with this question:
In America when you are trying to time counting seconds you often say Mississippi in between each number: "One Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippi..." Do they have something like that in England?
When Layah wrote to me,  I took the matter to Twitter, asking people to let me know what they use. And so if this post seems like a repeat, you may have read about this already. I was surprised to learn that I hadn't blogged it at the time. So, here it is!

In my American growing-up, there were two ways we did such counting -- very useful when playing hide-and-seek. One was one Mississippi, two Mississippi; the other was one one-thousand, two one-thousand... And other Americans may use other things, but Mississippi is indeed  widespread.

The British also have one one-thousand, but lots of others. The most common ones among(st) my Twitter correspondents were one elephant, two elephant and one Piccadilly, two Piccadilly. Many others were offered, including lots of other animals: chimpanzee, hippopotamus, crocodile.

This is the kind of informal, playground thing that is subject to lots of creativity and variation. You're welcome to offer yours in the comments--but please remember to say where you're from!