or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Bosom Companion

I downloaded yet another free application for my iPod touch from the iTunes Store the other day. (I do have some paid applications, but mostly I just get the free ones. I wonder how the folks at Apple feel about that.) This one is called Cheap Chirp!, the stripped-down version of Chirp!, which is a collection of bird calls and pictures so that you can learn to match the sound with the bird, or just amuse yourself and the cat with bird sounds. Cheap Chirp! has fifteen birds, and a number of them are tits. But why exactly might it be that there is a kind of bird called a tit?

Glad you asked.


A very old word, dating from the mid sixteenth century, "tit", related to such Nordic words as Icelandic "tittr" and Norwegian "tita", meant any small thing or animal. It doesn't really seem to have come from anywhere; it's a small word (one of the lowest-energy words to speak that it is possible to make in English, actually, requiring virtually no movement of any part of the mouth) for a small thing, and that's enough. Norwegian "tita" means "small bird", and that's just what its relative means in the English-speaking world.

Except, that is, North America, where we do not generally call birds tits. We call them chickadees, from their characteristic call (a trilling "chick-a-dee-dee-dee), or titmice, a word which deserves its own explanation, because they are not mice. The Old English word for the the family of songbirds of which the tit is a part was "mase", the smaller version (and "tit" means a small animal) was the tit-mase, and over time, influenced by "mouse", another tiny creature, it became, reasonably enough, "titmouse".

My stepfather calls chickadees "meatballs", because in his part of the world (the tree-laden hinterlands of Ontario), the black-capped chickadee is the most common variety, and it is essential a tiny sphere with a beak and legs attached.


On an episode of the excellent British quiz show Q.I., host Stephen Fry superciliously noted that Americans were so afraid of the word "tit" that they changed it to "tid-" in the expression "titbit", nearly without exception expressed in North America as "tidbit". And it's true: an old American prudishness almost certainly forbade the use of "titbit" and preferred "tidbit", whose usage, the OED notes, is "chiefly American". (Does one ever hear "titbit" in North America? I never have.) But Fry was wrong about one thing: "tidbit" is older than "titbit". It comes from an old dialectical word, "tid", meaning "nice" or "tender", so a tidbit is a choice morsel of food. "Titbit" rhymes, which means it has an internal balance that people like ("hurly-burly", "pell-mell", "picnic", "blackjack", and on and on), and "tit" means a tiny thing (we are not having any breast jokes here), so "titbit" could also logically mean that choice morsel, and so the word gradually drowned out "tidbit" in the UK.


Since "tit" means a small object, is a "tittle" not something similar? It means a little dot or stroke in penmanship, such as the dot over an "i" or a "j", and is most usually heard in the expression "every jot and tittle", meaning every tiny detail. But the words are not related. "Tittle" comes from Latin "titulus", meaning "inscription". No relation to "tit" at all.


And now, the breast joke.

If you are not a Newfoundlander of a certain age, you have almost certainly never heard of Ron Pumphrey, a journalist, radio-show host, and raconteur (among many other things, as you will discover if you bother to Google his name); but if you are such a Newfoundlander, then it is impossible that you could have avoided hearing of him. I am now going to tell you a story that he told; I'm paraphrasing, unfortunately, but there's no way I can track down the original. I promise you to the best of my ability that the gist of it is correct, as is the punch line. (I made the mistake of telling my mother this story when she was driving the two of us home one night--I was visiting her in Ontario--and she started laughing so hard she almost drove off the road. The story would be funnier if you could have someone read it to you in a Newfoundland accent, but, failing that, you will just have to use your imagination.)

Ron Pumphrey was famous throughout Newfoundland: everyone knew his name, because he was more or less everywhere more or less all of the time, on television, on the radio, in books and newspapers and magazines. Once he was visiting the home of a young couple in an outport town; the wife had just given birth, and she was trying to be a gracious hostess to her celebrated visitor and tend to the fussy baby at the same time. Nothing would calm the baby down, so she undid a few buttons and held him to her breast, but the baby was not going to be so easily placated.

"Take the tit, Frankie," she said, but the baby would have none of it.

She kept trying. "Take the tit, Frankie." Still the baby kept fussing. Finally, at her wit's end, she said,

"Take the tit or I gives it to Mister 'Umphries!"


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