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To a T

You missed a spot.

Dear Word Detective:  I recently received an e-mail from friends enjoying a cruise who described conditions on board as “most luxurious with service to a tee.” Putting aside my trip envy, I’m wondering: Why is outstanding service is described as to a “tee”? — Charlene.

E-mail on a cruise ship? Call me a Luddite, but I thought the whole point of cruises was to escape such things. Then again, my only experience of ocean travel was a voyage across the Atlantic on the Queen Elizabeth as a kid. No radio, no TV. It was very peaceful, like being marooned at your grandparents’ house for a week. Being trapped on a ship full of people yammering into their cell phones while they work on their Facebook updates doesn’t sound like a vacation to me. It sounds like a floating Starbucks.

OK, enough geezing. That’s a good question, and the answer leads down an interesting path to several other words and phrases.

“To a T” or “to a tee,” meaning “exactly, precisely, perfectly” is an older expression than you might think, dating all the way back to the late 17th century (“All the under Villages and Towns-men come to him for Redress; which he does to a T,” 1693). There’s been a lot of talk in the news about the recent discovery of a “Goldilocks planet” in a remote star system, one perfectly suitable to life as we know it. “To a T” denotes that “Goldilocks” state: not too much, not too little, just right.

There have been several suggestions as to what the “T” in the expression might represent, including a golf “tee,” the “tee” in the sport of curling (the center of the scoring area), a “t-square” and even a “t-shirt,” but none of these have any actual evidence in their favor.  (“T-shirt,” referring to the simple silhouette of the garment, first appeared in the 1920s, so that’s definitely not the source).

The “T” in “to a T” was probably originally short for a word beginning with “T,” and the word considered most likely is “tittle,” meaning “a very small part of something” or “a very small amount.” One powerful argument for “tittle” being the source of our “T” is the fact that “to a tittle,” meaning exactly the same thing as “to a T,” was in common use almost a century before “to a T” appeared.

If “tittle” sounds familiar, it’s because the phrase “jot and tittle” (or “jot or tittle”), meaning “every little point” or “the tiniest amount,” is a slightly antiquated but still common English idiom (“[T]here’s a real insider dogfight going on over every jot and tittle of insurance company expenditures,” Dallas Morning News, 9/24/10).

“Tittle” is, etymologically, actually the same word as “title” (as of a book), but “tittle” developed the special sense early on of “a small stroke in print or writing,” such as the dot over an “i,” a cross mark on a “t” or an accent mark. From there “tittle” moved on to being used to mean anything very, very small. “Jot” also means “a tiny mark or amount,” and was also originally used to mean a small mark made with a pen. (That “small mark” sense lives on in our use of “jot” as a verb meaning “to write a brief note.”) The root of “jot,” interestingly, is the Greek word “iota,” which was the equivalent of our Arabic “I” and the smallest letter in the Greek alphabet. And because you can, evidently, never have enough words for “nearly nothing,” we still use the word “iota” to mean “a tiny amount” (“We will not part with one iota of our privileges,” 1863).

Incidentally, the proverbial admonition “be sure to cross your t’s and dot your i’s,” meaning to double-check all the details of your work, is not only good advice but also a neat illustration of the progress of “tittle,” “jot” and “iota” from literal use in handwriting to their modern figurative uses.

So “to a T,” meaning “just right,” is actually a shortened form of “to a tittle,” meaning that something is correct down to the smallest point. And when we say “jot and tittle,” also meaning “to the smallest detail,” we are, yes, being a bit redundant, since “jot” and “tittle” mean the same thing. But while our refrigerator magnets may declare “Don’t sweat the small stuff,” the truth is that, as Goldilocks discovered, perfection consists of getting the jots, tittles and iotas just right.

Bound to / Niggle / Dree one’s weird

And don’t even think about pulling out your coupons.

Dear Word Detective:  This is one of those expressions we use so often it only just occurred to me to wonder how it developed. We can bind something, and something can be bound to something (like with twine). But how is something “bound” to happen, or “bound” to be? Tied to the fate of that eventuality? Sorry if this seems so obvious, but it’s been niggling at at me in the background since it came up. Ooh, how about “niggle”? Oh by the way, reading Terry Pratchett’s latest book, I came upon “dree (one’s) weird,” which I was able to look up, and think we should reintroduce into everyday discourse. Oh the possibilities! — Margaret Lethbridge-Cejku.

Uh, that’s three different words you’ve got there. No problemo, of course, but it reminded me of one of the strange things I noticed when we moved from New York City to Ohio. Out here, folks seem weirdly tolerant of people who join the “ten items or fewer” lane at the supermarket with 47 items in their cart. People behind them might mutter a bit, but it’s all very restrained. If they tried that kind of nonsense in a New York City supermarket, they’d be limping home with yogurt in their hair.

Your question about “bound” is a good one. There are actually four separate “bounds” in English, only one of which is directly related to the common verb “to bind,” meaning “to make secure, restrict, etc.” This “bound,” the past participle of “bind,” carries the figurative sense of “compelled or obliged” (“bound by his promise”) as well as “determined” (“bound to succeed”) and “fated, destined” (“bound to lose all his money in a silly scheme”). This is the “bound to happen or to be” sense in your question. In Old English, this word was “bunden,” which lives on in the somewhat antiquated phrase “bounden duty.”

The slightly older “bound” meaning “prepared to go” or “going,” as in “bound for college,” etc., comes from the Old Norse word “buinn,” which meant “to get ready.” Although this “bound” and the “destined” “bound” above are etymologically separate, there is some overlap, and it’s not easy to tell which “bound” is at work in phrases such as “We are bound to win.”

As for the two other “bounds,” things get a bit simpler. “Bound” meaning “limit” (as in “out of bounds”) comes from the Latin “bodina,” as does “boundary.” “Bound” as a verb meaning “to leap” comes ultimately from the Old French “bondir,” meaning “echo or rebound.”

The origin of to “niggle,” meaning “to be fussy, stingy” or, in the sense you used it, “to annoy, gnaw at,” first appeared in the 16th century, but its origin is unknown. A “niggling” thought, worry or doubt is not a major one, but one just annoying enough to drive you a bit crazy.

“To dree one’s weird” is indeed a great phrase. “Dree” is a very old word found mostly in Northern England and Scotland today meaning “to perform” or “to endure, to submit to.”  Although we use “weird” today primarily as an adjective meaning “strange or uncanny,” it was originally a noun meaning “fate or destiny,” or, in a personified sense, the three Fates themselves (who appear as the “weird sisters” in Shakespeare’s Macbeth). Thus “to dree one’s weird” means to endure one’s fate or submit to one’s destiny, and the phrase dates back to at least the 14th century.


Hint: It’s easier if you name them with numbers.

Dear Word Detective: As the proud father of several (if not more) teenage kids, ownership is a subject which often crops up. This may relate to either the desirability of ownership (“That’s MY iPod charger”) or to the opposite (“It’s YOUR room, you clean it up”). This brought up a debate about the word “belong.” On the face of it, it seems so simple. Can it really mean simply that one individual has “had” something for a sufficient time to claim ownership over its previous owner, i.e., that skateboard belongs to (has “been long” with) me? If that is indeed the case, then it’s just possible that my neighbor can claim ownership of my electric drill, as he’s had it for well over three years and doesn’t show any sign of wanting to return it. Help! –   Simon Silverwood.

Hey, I can swing by your house next week and count your kids for you if it’ll help. I know the feeling. People, especially supermarket cashiers for some reason, keep asking how many cats we have, and we’ve decided that from now on we’re just gonna say “five.” There may be a few more hiding under the couch, but we’re certain we have five. Of course, the only proper answer to “How many cats do you have?” is “How many do you want?”

Your hunch about the logic behind “belong” is, if not really in the ballpark, at least in the parking lot of the ballpark. In the beginning was the adjective “long,” which first appeared in Old English from Germanic roots, generally meaning (as it does today) “of a great extent in spatial measurement or duration” (e.g., “a long rope” or “a long time”) or as part of a phrase specifying length or duration (“three feet long”).

“Long” as an adjective went on to develop a dizzying range of uses both literal and figurative, but, most importantly for our purposes, it also spawned the verb “to long.” More precisely, it gave us two verbs “to long,” which are sometimes considered separate words but which are pretty clearly closely related. The older form of “to long” originally meant simply “to grow longer or lengthen,” but it also meant, as it does today, “to yearn for, to desire deeply,” a sense probably based on the sense of “thinking or feeling for a long time.”

The other “to long,” now considered archaic, meant “to be appropriate to” or “to be a part of.” This second sense of “to long” as a verb has faded from general use because it was replaced by “to belong” in the 14th century. “Belong” has, naturally, acquired its own wide range of meanings since then, from “to appropriately or habitually accompany” (“Grief has a natural Eloquence belonging to it,” 1712) to “to be a member of” (“Those who belong to the rank and file of life need this warning most,”1884) to the “to be legally or rightfully the property of” (“Thy buxom wench … Belongs a better man than thee,” 1764).

The question is, of course, how “belong” relates to the “length or duration” sense underlying “long” as an adjective. In the first place, the “be” of “belong” is not the common “to be” verb meaning “to exist or persist.” It’s not a verb at all. This “be” is an intensifying  prefix, dating back to Old English, meaning roughly “very much” or “thoroughly” (and also found in verbs such as “to bedazzle”). So if something “belongs” to you, that “be” doesn’t mean that it has “been long” in your possession. It means that it really is your property. So your neighbor should give back your drill.

So what’s “long” about “belong”? The “long” of “belong” apparently originally carried the sense of “being of equal length,” which was broadened to mean “running alongside of, parallel to, accompanying, or being a property of.” Thus if I “belong” to a family or club, I “travel alongside” them (in a metaphorical sense at least), and my possessions “belong” to me in that they are closely bound to me, even if I lend them to my neighbor for a few years.