Tag Archives: Words Publishing Gave Us

Always Mind Your Tittles

Hello,

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,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

Denouement – a knotty literary device

Hello,

This week’s word is denouement, with thanks to “The Penultimate Peril” by Lemony Snicket, the second last book in the Series of Unfortunate Events adventure books (for age 9-12) which I enjoyed earlier this year.

Some colourful knots

As you might guess this is a word the French gave us, although the French version is spelled slightly differently – dénouement. The denouement in a story takes place after the climax. It resolves all the loose ends of plots and any remaining secrets are revealed. Generally in a tragedy the characters end up worse off than they started and in a comedy the characters end up happier.

An example from history, rather than fiction, would be in World War II. The climax is the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan whereas the denouement is Japan’s official surrender. In “Romeo & Juliet” the climax would be their mutual deaths, whereas the prince’s speech afterwards, resolving the story, is the denouement.

Denouement transferred from French to English around the mid 1700s and despite its association with drawing together loose ends and tying up the various plot lines, it’s actually closer to untying something, at least linguistically speaking. Dénouement in French came from dénouer (to untie) and from desnouer in Old French. Desnouer was compounded from des (un-) and nouer (to knot or tie) which ultimately comes from the Latin word nodus, for knot. Nodus also give us the idea of a node in a network, such as neural networks.

So, denouement comes from the idea of untying knots although writers often think of it more as a place where various stands of plot are tied together in a neat bow to complete a narrative.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

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The Origin of Anecdotes

Hello,

Today’s word is anecdote with thanks to Everyday Etymology who mentioned it recently and sparked my interest.

Typesetter’s Case

Anecdote is used in recent times to identify a, usually brief, amusing story but this was not always the case. It entered English in the 1670s and originally described secrets and unpublished stories which is quite different from the little tales told by stars and authors promoting their latest movie or book on the sofa with a chat show host.

Anecdote either comes direct from the French word anecdote or from Greek roots (with a pit-stop in Latin). The Greek word anekdota means “unpublished things” and comes from an- (not) and ekdotos (published). Ekdotos itself means to “give out”. The whole concept amounts of anecdotes being something you do not give out or make public. An example of this was the “Anecdota”, the unpublished memoirs of the Roman emperor Justinian which were apparently packed with juicy court gossip, and this added to the original English anecdote’s meaning as being a secret story.

Human nature being fond of gossip and the inside story no doubt led to the erosion of the secrecy over time and now anecdotes are tidbits of news shared amongst friends, and on the chat show couch.

Where does this leave “anecdotal evidence“? By the original definition this is evidence which is not published and that’s where anecdote retains some of its original meaning as such evidence usually isn’t formally published but rather is gathered by oral stories. Good to see some secrecy has survived.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling with anecdotes,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)