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!


  1. Just to nit your nit, 1989 is not the effective date of anything OED-related; that's just when the First Edition and the Second Supplement were merged.

    So, when was tit-bit | tid-bit actually written up? Well, the OED1 fascicle Ti-Tombac came out in 1912, and the Ti-U volume five years later, probably with no changes. The word may have appeared in the First Supplement of 1933, and definitely was in volume Sea-Z of the Second Supplement in 1986, when three quotations were added but likely nothing else was changed.

  2. But of course some Americans WOULD giggle at titbits; I know more than a few.

    1. Some Brits would too apparently: try a Google image search for "Titbits magazine" (possibly NSFW!!!)

  3. I am the misguided reader Lynne alludes to here. Apologies for my earlier ignorance and thank you for clearing it up, Lynne.

  4. Lynne:
    That's an interesting tidbit. Quite serendipitously, I said to myself recently, "Why do the Brits say titbit?" I thought it rather odd, and yes, I noticed the 'tit' as a source low humor. Your post gave a tidy explanation.

  5. vp

    I've come unstuck in the past looking up things like NFSW online. If it really does mean 'not for showing the wife', then it's not really appropriate. Despite the title, the Titbits that I remember was not at all salacious. Google image does indeed yield some images which suggest otherwise, but they are of New Look Titbits.

    The magazine started in 188o- and was still going strong when I was a boy. I'm sure this established one pronunciation and one spelling in Britain. Tidbits couldn't get a look in. And when the hyphen disappeared from the Magazine heading, it was as if it had never been.

  6. @David Crosbie - NSFW stands for "not safe for work." I've never seen the explanation you gave for it.

    Of course, I like the abbreviation that is used on the snopes.com forums, NFBSK (not for British school kids).

  7. NSFW = not safe for work

  8. Thanks for this! I actually took out the word "titbits" of a piece recently - good to know I can useit in future without feeling the need to snicker!

  9. To be fair, though, the assumption of American prudishness affecting word choice seems to work in some other examples like the avoidance of 'cock' for a male chicken, now starting to permeate BrE, where the odd-to-my-eyes 'rooster' is making headway - how long before a pub called The Cock Inn is no longer permissible?

    But yes, I too was wrong about tidbit, and thanks to our hostess for clarifying - magna est veritas etc.

  10. I, too, remember Titbits magazine. And as Lynneguist points out in our Facebook conversation, tits here are (primarily) birds before the other meaning.

    And I agree with Graham Asher, American prudishness does work in other areas - don't they say "Roaches" instead of "Cockroaches", whereas here a "roach" is something used when smoking pot?

  11. 'Roach' for something to smoke pot with is named after the animal. Americans say either 'cockroach' or 'roach', and it's never struck me that shortening has anything to do with prudishness. We don't call 'cocktails' 'tails' or 'cockatiels' 'atiels', after all. And we have no problem saying 'peacock'. OED says it may be shortened on the basis of embarrassment, but that's a *may*. I'd guess that it's because Americans have more experience with the animal and thus a shorter name arises... *ugh*

    The marijuana-related meaning of 'roach' is originally AmE--and I'd always assumed it was on the basis of resemblance to the insect. OED has it under the insect name, but grants that it's not sure that's right.

    Mrs Redboots, I am *shocked* that you know such words! :)

  12. Incidentally, the 'cock' thing came up on Twitter, with me wondering:

    "Not sure if UKers really pay that much attention to age of bird, or if some say 'cockerel' to avoid 'cock'. I hear it quite a bit."

    Then lots of people responded saying "oh, I thought 'cockerel' was just the long form of 'cock'". So, there's the possibility of some taboo avoidance there too.

  13. I suspect the idea of "cockerel" being just a long version of "cock" isn't so much taboo avoidance as it is modern people being unfamiliar with livestock.

    Similarly, many people think "pig" and "hog" are interchangeable, and I've seen some confusion between "bull" and "steer" (and even "heifer").

  14. What about rooster? I've always assumed it was an American device for not saying cock. Is this another British myth?

  15. @Robbie,
    Seriously, why do these differences exist outside the farming/livestock industries? After all, we don't even have male/female distinction for most animals and birds let alone whether they have offspring or not and whether they are castrated or whether they're being used for plowing or not.

    Incidentally, I have no idea where I picked up the erroneous "heifer=male cow" thing. Maybe from the "Rocko's Modern Life" cartoon where there was a (male) cow character named Heifer?

  16. 'Rooster' used to be a regional English term (Kent, I believe). Now used in Australia & NZ as well. Earlier form was 'roost-cock'.

  17. Lordy! I had a correspondence run-in with a writer for the Guardian back in the mid-90s over the very same tidbit of AME-BRE usage.

  18. British choral singers see the most egregious bit of American prudishness every Christmas when we sing 'In the Bleak Midwinter' - one verse has been completely bowdlerised to:
    Angels and archangels may have gathered there,
    cherubim and seraphim thronged the air;
    but his mother only, in her maiden bliss,
    worshiped the beloved with a kiss.

    [the odd spelling of 'worshipped' is diagnostic of AmE]

    Christina Rossetti actually wrote:
    Enough for Him, whom cherubim, worship night and day,
    Breastful of milk, and a mangerful of hay;
    Enough for Him, whom angels fall before,
    The ox and ass and camel which adore.

    Is it the breast or the ass that causes such anxiety?!

    1. @biochemist

      The Bowlseri{s|z}ation here was performed by the very British composer Harold Darke.

      You can see Rosetti's beautiful poem as originally published in an American magazine -- complete with uncensored "breastful"s -- at its Wikipedia page.

  19. I'm not surprised that rooster is of English origin. My question was more one of perception and preference.

    Is it a British misconception that Americans say only rooster? Is there any evidence that it is or isn't avoidance of a taboo word?

    An associated question, is there any generality in the taboo use of cock that appears in a tiny number of early blues performances that escaped the censor? There it refers to then female anatomy, which some find a very much stronger taboo.

  20. Um, biochemist, we sing both those verse here in the UK! They are both part of the hymn; I have no way of knowing whether the second verse you quote is ever sung in the USA, but certainly both are sung here.

  21. I was going to make the same comment. We used to giggle about the second quoted verse as children, but obviously Christina Rossetti, as a Victorian maiden lady, thought it was acceptable.

    1. I imagine Rossetti was unaware that breasts are perfectly acceptable in a marketing context, but terribly embarrassing when used for nursing a baby. Victorian prudishness has since given way to Victoria's Secret prudishness.

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  24. Ah, Mrs Redboots,vp and anon: I have sung each version of that verse but thought they are alternatives - there are only ever four verses in the two major musical settings [Darke and Holst]; the 'give my heart' stanza is the final one. Perhaps the choice of third verse reflects what was thought 'suitable'.
    Vp, I couldn't get any text from the page you linked to - but I did notice the word tid-bits in the review!

  25. @Boris Z
    Most farmyard animals are identified by their most useful function. If this is sex-specific, then the appropriate animal gender is used. Thus cows, rather than oxen, when they became more used for milking than pulling.

    "Lo, he abhors not the virgin's womb/Very God, begotten not created" was my favourite frequently-cut-from-carols verse. Tell it like it is. Though it did get me worrying about how everyone else was begot - there was a lot of it going on.

  26. There is one AmE use of tit bits from recent years. Tit Bits are knitted prosthetic breasts which are apparently more comfortable and easier to use than other kinds. If you or anyone you know has had a mastectomy, you might like to point them in this direction. There's a free pattern for knitters to use, but you can also purchase ready made ones.

  27. David: Rooster is far more common in the U.S. than cock for the fowl. Certainly white meat and dark meat for cooked breast and leg are a result of mid-19th-century euphemism run amuck, though we no longer use cow-critter for bull.

    I suspect that the ox and lamb in the Christmas carol "The Little Drummer Boy" were originally the ox and ass bowdlerized for American audiences, though.

  28. There is cock fighting in the United States (never called rooster fighting).

  29. At the risk of returning to the topic, I've been casually compiling a list of US/UK words that sound like onomatopoeia (even though they aren't) and differ by the voicing of a consonant (specifically an alveolar stop or alveolar affricate). Here is what I have so far:


    In all of these it's entirely possible that the voiced (second) version is used in the UK as well. I'm not sensitive to pronunciations that are the same ones I (an American who has lived in England for years) would use.

    I also have a list of words where the voiced/voiceless contrast is in the alveolar fricative (/s/ when voiceless or /z/ when voiced). In many of these I've heard both pronounciations in the UK and only the voiced one in the US:

  30. Jill

    In my British English Asia and version have different fricatives: in IPA transcribed ʒ and ʃ in spelling ZH and SH.

    I can pronounce desolate either way, but can say only ASS-muh for asthma.

  31. In the US the phrase "cock o' the roost" is not unknown, and the nickname for the University of South Carolina football team is the Gamecocks (often shortened to Cocks, which tends to cause titters. Ahem.)

    But the bird that wakes people up at dawn by calling "cockadoodledoo" is invariably a rooster in children's books.

  32. Jill(zilla?):

    Bodge(U.K.)/botch(U.S.) goes the other way on voicing.

  33. I don't usually say bodge or botch but I do say the participle botched.

    I suppose I could use the word as a noun in the phrase a bit of a... — in which case I'd say botch.

  34. this is very perfect blog,
    i have visited here before 2 months and now i got some updates regarding Bodge.

  35. Not to belabor the titbit/ tidbit duality issue, but as an avid birdwatcher, quite familiar w/ our native "tit" species--the plain, oak and juniper titmouse varieties-- here in the U.S. Southwest, my naughty imaginings got the better of me, and I conjured up a scenario of a birder accidently stumbling onto a naturist encampment (nudist colony), eventually reporting back to his "Big Day" fellow birders that he'd managed to tally over 50 tits.

    Of course, he had to clarify his unlikely sighting, as titmice were rarely spotted in the area. When he explained himself, they all had a good chuckle..... although needless to say the lady birders were hardly amused.

    OK. I admit that was a stretch, but hopefully my little tale elicited a chortle , or two.

  36. Oh, another potential mild titter elicitor in the avian realm would have to be two rather delightful hyper-active little birds we see w/ some frequency here in So Cal, namely the bushtit and wrentit.

    Both of these tits are characteristically all atwitter, foraging rapidly from bush-to-bush, all abuzz w/ their series of incessant little high-pitched chirps. More so the bushtits, than the wrentits.

    The bushtits run in packs, well sizable flocks, whilst the white-irised wrentits tend to be rather solitary sorts, or hang out w/ a few mates.

    Well, if you were anticipating some naught wordplay w/ these fascinating little feathered tits, I'm afraid I've disappointed you.

    Hmm..... the "bush" part might have some potential, but I'll just let sleeping tits lie, thank you.

  37. jean-pierre metereau04 May, 2012 18:26

    The poem "The Tits of Britain" plays happily on the snicker factor.

  38. Meanwhile, for Graham Asher, here's a link to a wonderful article that illustrates the contemporary AE use of "rooster":

  39. The last few comments have reminded me that there is a British bird called the woodcock ...

    but I am really writing in to get back to the topic of tid- meaning 'choice' and to ask if there is any connection with the use of 'tidy' in phrases such as
    - turning a tidy profit
    - earning a tidy sum
    And here there is still a link with 'small' since it is actually a form of litotes to indicate that the profit was actually rather large!

  40. Biochemist,

    I suspect the word "tidy", as you've referenced as being used in the phrase "a tidy profit", has no relationship to, or derivation from the arcane word "tid", which, as lynneguist pointed out in her article, means special, or choice.

    In checking w/ my closest reliable word reference source at hand, my trusty Webster's College Dictionary (don't ask which edition HA!), one of the definitions of "tidy" , namely "fairly large, considerable", would appear to fit the "tidy profit" example.

    Also, if "tid" was the root of "tidy", it would be pronounced tid-dee, and not tie-dee--the correct way to pronounce the word.

    No biggie, though.

  41. The OED sees tidy as derived from tied. They imply a progression:

    1. 'timely' (like the tide)
    2. 'in good condition' (in the prime)
    3. 'excellent'

    Sense [2] survives in dialects. Sense [1] and the general use of [3] are obsolete. However they give another progression

    3a. 'excellent'
    3b. 'pretty good' (said lightly)
    3c. 'considerable'

    [3a} is obsolete and [3b] is a dated colloquialism, but [3b] survives in tidy profit/sum.

    Sense [4] is, of course, the usual 'neat'.


    The OED sees tidy as derived from tied.

    I have a vicious spell-checker which insists on getting outs own way. What I meant was:

    The OED sees tidy as derived from tide.

  43. Jill,

    Another for your list (which has even come up in passing among these comments!): BrE snigger = AmE snicker.

  44. John and David - wildly away from the original topic, I know, but on reflection I think I (BrE) tend to give separate meanings to bodge and botch.
    To me, the former implies an attempt (dishonest)to cover up poor workmanship or lack of the correct materials, or perhaps a temporary repair intended to be properly mended later - 'the plumber just bodged the leak and hoped I wouldn't notice'.
    Whereas a botched job is just poor workmanship or an accident that caused an imperfect result - 'the printer used the wrong ink and so the colour is wrong'.
    It's an unfortunate reflection on the honest bodger, who 200 years ago would be found in the English woodlands making solid wood furniture with a pole lathe, adze and other primitive equipment!

  45. biochemist

    'the plumber just bodged the leak and hoped I wouldn't notice'

    If I heard that, I would assume (unless told otherwise) that it was a newly-coined blend of botch and fudge.

    Which brings to mind fudge and mudge. It never occurred to me before at a conscious level, but now I seriously wonder whether there's a ghost of a blend there — a subliminally communicated blend of fudge and muddle.

  46. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  47. This comment [by Bronson O'Quinn] has been removed by a blog administrator.

    This appeared to be a perfectly innocuous and thoughtful posting. The follow-up — which I can't read — may have been objectionable, given the non-de-plume of the poster. But could Bronson's post be reinstated?

  48. David
    After the event, I looked in Google, which directed me to 'bodging' in Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bodging
    - they give a much more succinct summary in their English Slang section. But I agree that it is easy to merge -tch and -dge words, or to run them in parallel, as here.

  49. My apologies to Bronson, but Blogger's comment moderation workings have changed and I accidentally deleted it when trying to publish it (not realizing Blogger had started publishing things without asking me). I can't see any way to get it back. Very sorry!

  50. I can't reproduce the agreeable tone of Bronson\s posting, but I can remember the substance: that tit for tat is in American English neither remarkable nor sniggered-at.

  51. And that was an excellent point. Sad that I've lost it!

  52. I still had Bronson's comment in my inbox, which read as follows:
    "Bronson O'Quinn has left a new comment on the post "tidbits and titbits":

    American's say "tit for tat" with no trouble.

    I mean, we'll giggle at "titbit", but only because it sounds so foreign that we think someone saying it is being intentionally dirty.

    Either way, I love learning these idiosyncrasies of different Englishes! "

  53. Roy Trubshaw16 May, 2012 14:28

    I seem to remember a process "cultural ossification" (?) that occurs in colonies. I've always assumed that this is the original cause for such holdovers as tidbit, faucet and the propensity for AME speakers to use more archaic language constructions.

    Please don't disabuse me of this notion; I like to tease my American friends over their old-fashioned language usage. 8-)

  54. If you haven't read it, I really recommend Bill Bryson's: Mother Tongue: The Story of the English Language. He deals with this subject brilliantly.

  55. I'll try not to take that as an insult! :)

  56. What about "going to the bathroom"? I saw an American reality show (Judge Judy) in which a man faced the charge of public urination, but was actually accused off "going to the bathroom in the hall". What's wrong with that I thought. Turns out he had pissed in the corridor. No bathroom was involved, hence the charge, but even it it had been, the chances of there being a bath in it would be slim. No wonder they seem prudish to us Brits.

  57. And yet I've seen Brits go to the toilet to 'spend a penny' or 'see a man about a horse'. There are euphemisms for bodily functions everywhere.

  58. Lynne, it's not the euphemism that sounds funny to non-American ears. (The first person I heard reacting with amusement to the use was an Australian.) It's the fact that the euphemism contains a reference to a place.

    It's like It costs at least 20p to spend a penny — except that this is consciously funny.

    Similarly with you other example, for which I'd substitute about a dog. It's the excuse for going away that counts. I can't imagine Can you shut your eyes or go behind those trees while I go and see a man about a dog?

  59. Well, of course, this is the wrong place to discuss this because we've already been through some of it at the 'toilet' post:


  60. Back to the original word pair ... titbit/tidbit.

    I'm not sure why it appears to be assumed that the original 'tydbit' was taken over before about 1700 but the altered 'titbit' didn't transfer in the larger migrations after this time.

    I am no linguist but think it as likely that the North American tendency to pronounce 't' within words as a 'd' has led the change. ('Botch' to 'bodge' would follow my amateur reasoning too.)

    To go on, and open myself to more flames, I'd also attribute it to, for want of a better description, laziness. It's easier to make a 'd' sound than a 't' sound.

    Not that laziness in speech is a particularly North American trait, much the same is happening here in the United Kingdom with, for example, 'Wembley' & 'England' when they are pronounced 'Wemberley' & 'Engerland'. The "bl" & "gl" sounds are harder to make than their newer forms.

    Right - I'll buzz off now and take my ignorant ramblings elsewhere.

    As you were.

    1. You say 'laziness' I say 'natural phonological process'.
      The voiced 'flap' pronunciation of /t/ (not technically a 'd' but perceived as one) in AmE only happens between vowels, so it's not a factor here. If that weren't the case, then American 'batboy' would sound like 'badboy' (but it doesn't)--and many other -tb- examples...

  61. Your rich thread reminded me... I have American (New England) cousins, who as children in the 1960s came over to the UK to visit our grandparents. I was always struck by the fact they religiously said 'in back of' to avoid saying 'behind' which was to me an unnecessary and tortured euphemism for the innocuous word 'bottom'. But for 'bottom' they would also say 'tush' which sounded rude to me, and 'fanny' which was to me the rudest word I knew, not yet having discovered the Anglo Saxon equivalent. Finally, (when 18) one female American cousin would say 'mammaries', to me a very weird (prim, pious) euphemism for 'breasts' or 'bosom' - at school, we boys used the word 'tits' for 'breasts'... and I'm finally nearly on theme! James

  62. Americans don't say 'in back of' in order to avoid saying 'behind'. We say it because it's our opposite to 'in front of'. Its first citations are earlier than the first citations for the 'bottom' meaning of behind, which seems to have arisen in the UK.

  63. Thank you - I stand corrected, and illuminated! Best James

  64. Why would anyone say "tid" instead of "tit"? You can never have enough tits.


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