Saturday, March 22, 2014

Random thoughts on tidbits and titbits

tidbit   &   titbit
An aquaintance of mine was wondering why Americans say tidbit while in Britain we usually say titbit, with the implied question 'Why do the Americans have to change everything?'
Indeed there are some people, and not only in Britain, who think that tidbit is a bowdlerisation of titbit, the story being that Americans thought that tit was rude, and so replaced it with tid. This idea was recently repeated by David Mitchell at the Guardian, but it is, of course, nonsense.

For any foreign learners reading, let's first look at a definition of titbit. Oxford Dictionaries Online give two definitions:
A small piece of tasty food:
when you are out with your puppy always have a titbit in your pocket
A small and particularly interesting item of gossip or information:
they were hoping for titbits about the family

Oxford Dictionaries Online

American dictionaries give much the same definition for tidbit.
As the following Ngram graph shows, the use of the word tidbit actually started in Britain, not America. Ngram figures (and those at Google Book Search) are very unreliable before about 1750, as they show lots of entries for titbit which turn out to be something completely different, for example habit. Nearly all the 17th century so-called examples are from Latin texts.
It's interesting that while the popularity of tidbit in the States appears to be increasing, the use of titbit is dropping off in the UK, apparently in favour of tidbit.
At first I found it hard to believe that tidbit had made as much of a comeback as the graph suggests - there is, for example, only one example of tidbit in the British National Corpus as opposed to 27 for titbit. But site searches of the British media threw up some surprises.
The BBC153153
The Times180
The Guardian5135
The Telegraph11042
The Independent12218
The Economist2597
The Financial Times2313
The Daily Mail5481
The Daily Express813
The Sun10
It seems that quite a few Guardian journalists ignore their own style guide, which stipulates titbit. In any case, perhaps we shouldn't see tidbit so much as an invading Americanism as a British word returning after a long absence.


Tidbit and titbit were probably formed by adding bit to two different base words, the adjective tid and the noun tit. This is from a late eighteenth-century dictionary:

A new general English dictionary, Thomas Dyche, William Pardon, London 1781

The Online Etymology Dictionary puts tidbit as appearing in the 1630s, probably from tid, 'perhaps by influence of tit'. The OED says something pretty similar, and apparently most of their earlier citations are for tidbit.

Johnson's Dictionary of the English Language and other dictionaries

Although Johnson's dictionary is more famous, it had a forerunner in Nathan Bailey's 1721 dictionary, which mentions tidbit but not titbit.

An Universal Etymological English Dictionary, Nathan Bailey, London 1721 (1731 edition)

In the 1755 first issue of his dictionary, Johnson listed both tid and titbit, but suggesting that it should really be tidbit.
Titbi't. n.s. [properly tidbit; tid, tender, and bit.] Nice bit; nice food.
John pampered esquire South with titbits till he grew wanton. Arbuthnot.

Henry W Fowler

In 1926 Fowler wrote (for a British readership):
The older spelling was tid- ; but it is now so much less usual, & the significance of tid is so doubtful, that there is no case for reverting to it. To make the two parts of such words rhyme or jingle is a natural impulse that need not be resisted unless it involves real loss of meaning.

A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, H.W.Fowler, Oxford 1926

So looking at all these source, it seems very probable that tidbit predates titbit.

Tidbit and titbit at Google Books

The earlier period is a bit awkward to search due to the number of false positives, which turn out to be something completely different, so it's quite possible I've missed something. You also have to take Google's dating with a bit of a pinch of salt.
So far, the earliest ínstance of tidbit I've found is from 1650, and one for titbit from 1708. It looks as though tidbit was indeed the first, but there was very little in it.
It's also noticeable that all the examples of tidbit I've been able to find before 1800 have been British, not American.

17th century

I can only find one seventeenth century example of tidbit (for 1650) at Google Books, and none of titbit.

Solomonis panaretos, John Trapp, London 1650

1700 - 1750 tidbit

The next examples of tidbit I found were in a couple of dictionaries from 1701 and 1702, which suggests it had been around some time before that:

The Law-French dictionary, London 1701

TID, Adj. delicat, friand, fort bon
tidbit, un morceau delicat, friand, une friandise

Dictionnaire Royal, FranÇois et Anglois, Abel Boyer, The Hague 1702
Google Books

Then there are quite a few from the first half of the eighteenth century:

The Works: In Prose and Verse, Thomas Brown, London 1708

The Guardian, Sir Richard Steele 1713,

So far the examples have followed the dictionary defibition, but here perhaps are the first examples of a young woman being referred to as a tidbit. Remember, at that time, tit could refer to a pretty young 'thing' or woman:

Plautus's Comedies, Titus Maccius Plautus, translate by Laurence Echard, London 1716

The Fair of St. Germain, Jean François Regnard, Charles Rivière Dufresny, trans. Mr Ozell, London 1718

And now a couple of examples in verse:

A Most Pleasant Description of Benwel Village, in the County of Northumberland, Cuthbert Ellison 1726

The City Mouse and country mouse (Aesop's Fables), The Student: Or, The Oxford and Cambridge Monthly Miscellany, Volume 1, Oxford 1750

Others include:

Mr. Pope's Literary Correspondence, Alexander Pope, London 1736

A general dictionary, historical and critical, Peter Bayle & others, London 1739 (in notes to an entry on Anthony du Prat

The Champion, Henry Fielding, James Ralph, London 1741

Rabelais - Gargantua and Pantagruel

At first glance, it looks as though Google Books list a version of Gargantua and Pantagruel from 1653, which includes the word tit-bit and also Titt Bit (one of a group of strangely named chefs) in Book IV.
This version turns out, however, to be a reprint, first published by the Navarre Society in 1904, of the first translation. This reprint shows the original frontispiece dated 1653, suggesting that the whole work dates from then. This is a bit misleading, however: Books I and II were indeed published in 1653, translated by Sir Thomas Urquhart, who also translated Book III, but this was not published until 1693. And Book IV, translated by Peter Antony Motteux and where these instances of titbit appear, was only published for the first time in 1708.
There's a version at Project Gutenberg, with illustrations by Gustav Doré, which also follows Motteux's translation, as apparently does a version published in 1737, 'revised' by the ubiquitous Mr Ozell.

The works of Francis Rabelais, revised by Mr Ozell, 1737

1700 - 1750 titbit

This was also from 1708:

The Life of Guzman D'Alfarache, Or, The Spanish Rogue, Mateo Alemán, John Savage, London 1708

There were only a few more from the first half of the century.

The works of the celebrated Monsieur Voiture, Voiture (Vincent, Monsieur de), trans. Mr Ozell, London 1731

The London Magazine, London 1732

Miss Lucy in town, Henry Fielding, Dublin 1742

The Minor, a comedy, Mr Foote, in The Gentleman's and London Magazine, Dublin 1760

1750 - 1800 tidbit

The Monthly Review, London 1783 (concerning a tribe in Russia)

The Guardian, David Garrick, London 1792

The Gentleman's Magazine and Historical Chronicle, London 1795

1750 - 1800 titbit

This is the example cited by Dr Johnson:

The History of John Bull, Dr Arbuthnot, in The Works of Dr. Jonathan Swift, 1757

The History of Joshua Trueman Esq. and Miss Peggy Williams, Joshua Trueman, Peggy Williams, Dublin 1755

The Hibernian Magazine, Dublin 1775

The Busy Body, Mrs Centlivre, in British theatre: consisting of the most esteemed English plays, Volume 8, John Bell, 1780

Samuel Foote

"Samuel Foote (January 1720 – 21 October 1777) was a British dramatist, actor and theatre manager from Cornwall. He was known for his comedic acting and writing, and for turning the loss of a leg in a riding accident in 1766 to comedic opportunity." (Wikipedia)
It looks as though Foote himself preferred tid-bit. These are from the first edition of his play The Minor, first performed in 1760:

The Minor, Samuel Foote, original edition, London 1760

The Minor, Samuel Foote, the original edition, London 1760

In a later collection, published in 1793, one of the tid-bits has been changed into tit-bit, although the other remains unchanged.

The Minor, S Foote, London 1793

In later editions from 1809 and 1830, however, both appear as tid-bit.

Nineteenth century

These are the first American examples I've found:

The Valley of Shenandoah, George Tucker, New York & London 1825

The English in France, Constantine Henry Phipps Normanby (Marquess of), Philadelphia 1829

And it had by no means died out in Britain:

Fraser's Magazine, London 1840

and was still being listed in British dictionaries:
TID.— A "tid-bit" or a "tit-bit" is a choice morsel of food. Cunningly reserved.
"I ax'd un what was the matter, but a was maain tid about ut."

A glossary of Berkshire words and phrases, England 1888
Google Books

Meanwhile in Noah Webster's A High-school Pronouncing Dictionary of the English Language,published in 1857, only tidbit appears, defined as 'a delicate bit', so keeping the original meaning of tid.
In a dictionary of repeated words (well-worth a look, with such delights as blish-blash and rowley-powley), published for the Philological Society, London, HB Wheatley apparently repeats Johnson's preference:

A Dictionary of Reduplicated Words, Henry B Wheatley, London 1866

Theodore Martin (1816 - 1909)

Martin was a Scottish poet, biographer, and translator, and was still using tidbit as late as 1870.

The Odes, Epodes, and Satires of Horace, transl. Theodore Martin, Edinburgh and London 1870

Faust: A Dramatic Poem, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, transl. Theodore Martin, Edinburgh 1870

Tid-bits and Titbits - the magazines

There were a couple of magazines which took their name from the gossip meaning of tidbit / titbit. Tid-bits was a short-lived New York magazine published by J.W. Lovell, between 1884 and 1888.
The British publication Tit-Bits (or to give it its full title 'Tit-Bits from all the interesting Books, Periodicals, and Newspapers of the World') was a sort of digest and had been started a couple of years earlier, in 1881. Becoming simply Titbits in 1973, it was taken over by Weekend in 1984, which itself closed in 1989.
At its peak it had a circulation of between 400,000 and 600,000. Although it tended to concentrate on sensation, it also published work by writers such as Rider Haggard and Isaac Asimov, including the first humorous article by P. G. Wodehous. (Adapted from Wikipedia)
In later years, however, sensation seems to have got the upper hand, and judging by its covers at Google Images, another aspect of its title came to the fore.


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