OUPblog > Language > Dictionaries & Lexicography > Tit for Tat,
Or, A Chip Off the Old Block?

Tit for Tat,
Or, A Chip Off the Old Block?

By Anatoly Liberman

Many words resemble mushrooms growing on a tree stump: they
do not have common roots but are still related.  I will use few examples, because if you have seen one, you
have seen them all.  Nothing is
known about the origin of cub, which
surfaced in English texts only in 1530 (that is, surprisingly late). style="mso-spacerun: yes"> 
It may have existed centuries before
1530, but there is no evidence. 
Now the mushroom metaphor begins to work.  Cub resembles
Old (and Modern) Icelandic
kobbi
“seal” and
kubbi “block of wood”
and, by the same token, Engl.
cob,
a mainly regional word, except in
(corn)cob. style='font-style:normal'>  Dutch
has kabbe and kebbe style='font-style:normal'> “little pig”; its synonym kibbe style='font-style:normal'> also occurs in Dutch dialects. style="mso-spacerun: yes">  In German, Kibbe style='font-style:normal'> “ewe” has been attested, which resembles Scots keb style='font-style:normal'> and early Engl. kebber style='font-style:normal'>“refuse sheep taken out of the flock.” style="mso-spacerun: yes">  Danish kippe style='font-style:normal'> and Swedish dialectal kibb ~ kubbe style='font-style:normal'> mean “a (small) calf.”  Even when it is not said expressly that such words are
dialectal (regional, local), they usually are, though Icel. kobbi style='font-style:normal'> and Engl. cub belong to the Standard.

An earlier meaning of the kib ~ keb ~ cob ~ cub style='font-style:normal'> cluster may have been “a block of wood,” and, if so,
those words may be related to Engl. chip “a small thin piece of wood” and Icel. kjabbi style='font-style:normal'> “a fat person.”  In the remote past, the sound complex k-b, style='font-style:normal'> with some short vowel between the consonants, seems
to have designated a formless object (hence perhaps “a block of wood”) and a
small, cuddly creature.  Engl. cub style='font-style:normal'> looks like a chip off that block. style="mso-spacerun: yes">  Later the idea of smallness could have
been lost, and we encounter the gloss “ewe” rather than “lamb.” style="mso-spacerun: yes">  Small animate things often share names
with creatures considered useless, so that kebber style='font-style:normal'> “refuse sheep” need not surprise us. style="mso-spacerun: yes"> 

As always, the beginning of things is hidden. style="mso-spacerun: yes">  Why should the combination of
consonants k-b with short a,
e, i, o,
and u style='font-style:normal'> between them have been chosen for designating a
formless object (assuming that the reconstruction of meaning offered above is
realistic)?  The complex is not
sound imitative and does not evoke any particular associations with
shapelessness.  Given our state of
knowledge, the ultimate connection between sound and meaning, unless we deal
with words like moo and chirp-chirp, style='font-style:normal'> is beyond recovery.

A similar case is the t-d group.  The words
belonging to it designate small objects and small movements. This is where
tit
for tat
comes in.  Some of these words are regional, while others have wider
currency:
tad “child,” tid,
best known as part of tidbit, tod style='font-style:normal'> “bushy mass,” tod ~ toddie~ todie style='font-style:normal'> “a small round cake of any kind of bread, given to
children to keep them in good humor,” and tud style='font-style:normal'> “a very small person.”   The last consonant is often t. style='font-style:normal'>  The
British English variant of tidbit
is
titbit. style="mso-spacerun: yes">  Both tottle style='font-style:normal'>and doddle
exist, and
tottle is a synonym of
toddle.  Among the glosses of tid style='font-style:normal'> in a dialectal dictionary, we find “teat.” style="mso-spacerun: yes">  Its vulgar variant (synonym) is tit, style='font-style:normal'> and dialects have tet. style='font-style:normal'>  In tit
for tat,
both words are symbolic names for
“some quantity.”
Tit (a word with
i, a close short vowel),
naturally, stands for something smaller than
tat. style='font-style:normal'>  Tit style='font-style:normal'> is also “a small horse” and “girl,” and the titmouse
is a very small bird (the idea of smallness comes from tit, style='font-style:normal'> not from -mouse, style='font-style:normal'> which is a folk etymological adaptation of a word
that has nothing to do with rodents, as evidenced by its older form and German Meise, style='font-style:normal'> among other cognates, the name of the same
bird).  Tittle, tattle, style='font-style:normal'> and tittle-tattle style='font-style:normal'> also suggest smallness.  Tot is
“anything very small; a tiny child”;
tut has numerous meanings, including “a small seat made of straw.” style="mso-spacerun: yes">  The interjection tut-tut style='font-style:normal'> looks like one of the words listed above. style="mso-spacerun: yes">  Perhaps even toad style='font-style:normal'>belongs here, though its vowel causes problems. style="mso-spacerun: yes">  The toad may have been thought of as a
small round creature, or its warts may have given it its name. style="mso-spacerun: yes">  Not inconceivably, the toad’s manner of
moving in short steps (“toddling, tottling”) style='font-style:normal'> provided the connection.  As was the case with k-b, style='font-style:normal'> we should admit that we don’t know why the
combination t-d acquired its
meaning, that is, why
k-b words
designate formless objects, while
t-d word are associated with smallness. 

How numerous are such nests of words? style="mso-spacerun: yes">  Amazingly numerous, much more so than
some etymologists believe.  In one
of my earlier posts, I discussed the origin of gawky. style='font-style:normal'>  Gawk
~ geek ~ geck
are part of a group of words
in the Germanic languages denoting stupidity.  But here we have at least some clue to the emergence of the
cluster.  Not improbably, those are
sound imitative words, with
g-k
rendering the inarticulate mumbling of the retarded.  The world treated such people with horror and contempt and
coined disparaging words for them. 
The story of
niggardly,
also once described in this blog, is similar:
nig-, nib- style='font-style:normal'> (as in nibble), nud- (as in nudge style='font-style:normal'>), nod-, nock, and other short words beginning with n style='font-style:normal'> and ending in a consonant again refer to small
movements.  Likewise, the f- style='font-style:normal'>word and mooch ~ mug style='font-style:normal'> (the verb) ~ (cur)mudgeon style='font-style:normal'> have cognates reminiscent of those mentioned
above.  In the rise of cub
~ keb ~ cob
and tid ~ tod ~ tud style='font-style:normal'> sound imitation does not seem to have been a
factor.  Scholars are averse to
calling any process arbitrary (they try to order chaos), so that we will leave
our cubs and tots in limbo, at least for the time being. style="mso-spacerun: yes">  Above I compared such word groups with
mushrooms growing on a stump. If more imagery is needed, we can think of
charges of the same orphanage: although their age is different, they wear the
same uniform but are not siblings. 
Mushrooms, however, have the same mycelium (spawn).


Anatoly_liberman

Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to blog.us@oup.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”


Please note: an expanded “Monthly Gleanings” post with the answers to your questions from the last month will appear next Wednesday, September 6.

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