That’s not a typo in the title of this post, by the way. I really did mean to spell title with an extra t. This week’s word is tittle and yes, it does have a link to the phrase tittle-tattle, but more on that in a moment.
A tittle is a small stroke or point in writing (or printing) and has been an English word since the 1300s, although not much used outside certain circles. You use a tittle when you dot your lowercase i or j, for example.
A tittle can also be used in many languages to indicate specific pronunciations. French-speakers will recall the acute accent, cedilla, circumflex, grave, and trema while German-speakers know the umlaut (the scharfes S is officially a letter in the alphabet), and Spanish experts will be familiar with the wavy tilde amongst others. Tittles used in this way allow written languages to indicate how they should be spoken.
A tittle can also be a stroke, or dot, to indicate omitted letters in a word. For example, in English we use a tittle to show missing letters such as the missing letter O in the word don’t.
Tittle, because it is a small thing is also sometimes used as a word to describe a tiny amount or a part of something, along the same lines as the word jot. For example, “There wasn’t a tittle of common sense in the politician’s speech”.
Tittle entered English as a translation of apex from Latin. Apex came from the Greek word keraia (little horn), which itself came from Hebrew word qots (thorn) which described little lines projecting from letters to distinguish them from each other. Each of those languages used such flourishes and needed a word to describe them.
Related words are titulus (title) from Latin for a stroke to show missing letters (like my example “don’t”). There’s also the Provençal word titule (the dot over an i), and tilde which is the Spanish form of the same word.
You may also know the phrase “to a T”. It is likely this has it’s origins with the word tittle as an earlier phrase “to a tittle” had been used.
Another phrase also sprang to mind when I stumbled across tittle, “tittle-tattle” meaning gossip or idle chatter. Tattle arrived in English after tittle (the late 1400s) and meant to stammer or prattle possibly from Middle Flemish tatelen (to stutter) or East Frisian tateren (to chatter or babble). It wasn’t until the 1580s that tattle became associated with the telling of secrets. Certainly in my school-days you didn’t want to be tagged as tattle-tale, one who told incriminating details to your teacher about other students.
Tattler is now perhaps best known without its double-T, Tatler magazine had a run in the early 1700s and is still popular today, perhaps because everybody loves to know secrets?
Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,