totting and toting

JHM wrote in September to ask the following:
A [Financial Times] column used the phrase "tot up" which the context implied was a shortened form for what I would write as "sum up," in other words, to find the total amount. My questions are: 1) Is this a common usage? 2) Would a typical Englishman pronounce "tot up" to rhyme with "tote up?" a) If so, why wouldn't it be spelled "tote up"? b) If not, mightn't it sound more like "taht up," in which case it would it risk being confused with "tart up?"
I'll take JHM's questions in turn:
1). Yes, tot up is BrE meaning 'to add/sum up'. The OED lists it as colloquial, but the fact that it's used in the Financial Times probably means that it's not seen as being particularly colloquial these days. In AmE one is more likely to see/hear tote up. A fixture on American telethons (orig. and chiefly AmE) and other fund-raisers is the tote board, i.e. a representation of how much money has been pledged/collected so far (represented either just as a total figure or a 'thermometer', etc.). Tote boards are also used at racetracks, to show how much the return on a particular bet is. Of course, you have these things in British fund-raisers/racetracks too, but I haven't heard them called tote boards here (and they're not called tot boards either!). The OED lists the related noun tote 'now dialectal' and as originally Australian, with the noun form being short for totalizator--a proprietary name for a kind of machine that tallies numbers up. (In Australia and New Zealand, apparently, the Totalizator Agency Board is the official non-racetrack place where you can bet on horse races--i.e. the equivalent of American Off-Track Betting.)

2-a) Tot up rhymes with hot up, not with tote up. Both verb forms tot up and tote up come from total in some way or another--with the former looking more like it relies on the spelling of the abbreviation of total for its form/pronunciation, and the latter being a clipping of the (pronounced) word total. A similar shortened form is tut to mean tutorial (we used that in South Africa--is it used in British universities that still have tutorials?). It's pronounced to rhyme with hut, rather than like the first syllable ('toot') in the word it stands for, tutorial. So, the spelling of the shortened form has influenced its pronunciation.

b) In (at least southern standard) BrE, tot up and tart up ('to dress in a showy/gaudy manner') have very different vowels. The problem with explaining this to AmE speakers is that AmE generally doesn't have the vowel that's in BrE tot. So, if an American says tot up, it may sound like tart up to a BrE speaker because they're not using the vowel that a BrE speaker would expect to hear. But if a BrE speaker (at least the ones down here in the south) says tot or tart it would be very clear to another BrE speaker which one they're saying. I discussed this vowel back here, where there's a link to recordings of it.
Tote has another, unrelated meaning that is originally AmE: 'to carry'. Of course, the meaning has spread wider than AmE now, especially through the compound tote bag. The etymology of this tote is something of a mystery. It goes back to the 1600s at least, and is often claimed to be of African origin, but there's evidence of it being used that early in parts of America that didn't have many Africans. So, despite a lot of etymological attention to the word, it's still a mystery.


  1. Another different between Southern British English 'tot' and 'tart' is that the vowel of 'tart' is longer than the vowel of 'tot'. As a speaker of American English, where vowel length distinctions are less important, I had to learn to hear it.

    I think there have been perception studies to determine whether SBE speakers rely more on the vowel difference or the length difference to distinguish tot/tart and similar pairs, but I don't know the results.

  2. "AmE generally doesn't have the vowel that's in BrE tot." What, not snot?

  3. Nope. (Don't confuse spelling for pronunciation!) The vowel when a BrE speaker says tot or snot is not the same vowel as when an AmE speaker says those words. See the link back to the old post about those vowels in order to hear the difference...

  4. Just to make it easier to find those vowels... Here is the link to the audio file of a BrE speaker saying heat, hit, hate, hat, heart, hot, hoot, hut, hurt, height. Notice the difference between heart and hot. That's the same difference as between tart and tot in 'standard' BrE.

    Here are the same words being said by an AmE speaker. The hot vowel here is in some ways more like the BrE heart vowel than the BrE hot vowel. Unfortunately, we don't have the two hots right next to each other so that you can compare them easily.

    Better Half and I will have to work on putting audio files onto my posts. I'm sure he can figure out how to do that (being Mr Audio-Producer Man). But that'll have to wait, as he's off to the US for a week.

  5. In a somewhat-less-standard version of AmE (observed in Norman, Oklahoma), I've had occasion to find out that "fire" and "far" can have vowel sounds that are largely indistinguishable (something like "faahr"). The vowel in "fire" might be slightly longer than that in "far", but that can be difficult or impossible to discern if there is any ambient noise. (Even the native speakers have problems distinguishing these words without context.)

  6. To answer one question - here at Oxford University, where there still are tutorials, they are known by the students as 'tutes', pron. 'tyoots'/'choots' to rhyme with 'boots', unlike in South Africa.

    The UK bookmaker authorised to run pool betting on horses at both racecourses and in shops all over the country is universally known as 'The Tote', though its official name is 'The Horserace Totalisator Board' - there is also a Tote Ireland. Generally computer/television screens are used these days rather than the older style electronic boards.

    As a southern Br. English speaker I have to agree that length is an important distinguishing feature between the vowels of 'tot up' and 'tart up', espcially in my case as a glottal stopper.

  7. Phonetically speaking, the main difference between the BrE tot vowel and the AmE version (and the vowel in tart) is a bit of 'roundedness' in the tot vowel. It's not just the length--it's also the quality of the vowel.

  8. In the linked audio file, when the BrE speaker is saying the word "hot",
    it sounds very similar to the first syllable of the word "haughty" spoken by an AmE speaker of the mid- atlantic region.

  9. That's a good way to describe it, Christopher. Unfortunately, that's one of those vowels that's pronounced differently in different parts of the US, so the description won't work for everyone...

  10. As a speaker of Southern British English, I don't think I have heard/read 'sum up' being used as an equivalent of 'add up'.

    I am familiar with 'to sum' as meaning 'to find the total' but it sounds very old fashioned. To me, 'sum up' means 'to make a summary of the discussion so far'. It's what judges, for example, do at the end of a trial before the jury retires to consider its verdict, or what the chair might do during a meeting.

    Also, I don't think the difference between 'tot up' and 'add up' is simply one of register. I think 'tot up' implies a much quicker process.

  11. I've always wondered if the word tote, to carry, came from the Japanese, where totte preceding a verb of motion can mean either to bring here or to take there. Totte as a noun is a handle,grip, or knob.

  12. Sounds pretty implausible--there weren't a lot of Japanese people in the American colonies in the 17th century...

  13. Bingley: I'm not sure I wouldn't use "sum up" exactly as you describe either. Perhaps I thought 'sum up' sounded more British.

    M Sinclair Stevens: Isn't Japanese related to Turkic? Could some Silk Road languages share a similar word?

  14. Being from north Lancashire myself, the vowels in 'tot' and in 'tart'

    It is possible that 'tot' as in 'tot up' (a phrase I've known as along as I can remember) is related to 'totting', as in scavenging for discarded items for reuse or sale, or (AmE)dumpster/(BrE)skip diving? My faithful Chambers says Orig uncertain.

    The eponymous characters in Steptoe & Son, the BBC sitcom that re-emerged in the US as Sanford & Son, were totters by profession. I've never seen the American version so I don't know what they called themselves.

  15. Did I really leave that first sentence unfinished? I meant to say:

    Being from north Lancashire myself, the vowels in 'tot' and in 'tart' are miles apart.

    If I had a brain I'd be dangerous. Or maybe I'm just easily dis

    Ooh! Shiny thing!


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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)