Ditto is one of those English words you may not hear that often, and yet it is needed and used regularly. I remember being astounded when somebody explained to me at school that if I used two small parallel vertical lines below an item in a list that was a way to show the item was repeated. “That means ditto,” they said. “What’s ditto?” I replied.
What is ditto? Ditto is the same thing again, often indicated by the ditto mark (those little parallel lines, sometimes typed via the double quote mark on your keyboard) beneath the word or figure to be repeated. Ditto can also be used in speech or writing to indicate a repeated action. For example, “He crossed his legs, so did she. He folded his arms, ditto“.
Ditto has been with us for a long time in English and has old roots. It arrived in English in the early 1600s with thanks to Italian and Tuscan dialect in particular, but with links to Latin. In Latin there’s a verb dicere (to speak, tell, or say). In Italian that verb became dire (to say) which may seem very familiar to French speakers as dire is also used in that language. The verb dire in Italian is conjugated into detto. The Tuscans took a twist on it with ditto (in the said month or said year).
It was that twist which led Italians to use ditto to avoid repetition of month names when writing a series of dates. This shortcut was then adopted by the English, who traded widely with Italy at the time. By the late 1600s ditto was being used to mean “the same as above” for any item, not only dates.
By the late 1700s you might also find the word dittoes being used for a suit of men’s clothes of the same colour and fabric. This use persisted at least to the early 1800s.
A similar but unrelated word is dittography. This is defined as “the unintentional repetition of letters or words in copying or printing”. For example, writing tabble instead of table. I expected it to share roots with ditto, but apparently not according to several dictionary sources. It’s imported to English from Greek dittos (double) and graphia (writing) – literally the idea of writing something twice.
Until next time, happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,
p.s. I may clicked the wrong button when posting last week and made some posts available to subscribers only. Apologies for this mishap!