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Ditto

Q From Pat Thomas: I was rereading Through the Looking-Glass by Lewis Carroll, as I do about once every year, but for the first time thought about this bit of dialogue: ‘“If I’m only a sort of thing in his dream, what are you, I should like to know?” “Ditto” said Tweedledum. “Ditto, ditto” cried Tweedledee.’ It’s an odd word, ditto. Where did it come from?

A This commercial term was originally Italian. Merchants from that country, you may recall, were versed in bookkeeping and accountancy very early. Double-entry bookkeeping, for example, was invented in that country and was popularised in a famous book of 1494 by Luca Bartolomes Pacioli, a monk and friend of Leonardo da Vinci, though there are known examples of the method going back to the thirteenth century.

It was in the early seventeenth century — about a century after Frater Pacioli’s work appeared — that ditto is first recorded in an English book. It had been borrowed from the Tuscan dialect, in which ditto was a variant of detto, the Italian word meaning said. In turn, this derives from Latin dictus with the same meaning.

At first, English used it like Italian, to avoid having to repeat the name of a month already mentioned:

Anno 1577. Decemb. 13. Mr Francis Drake with five Ships and Barks and 165 men, set out from Plymouth, 27 ditto he came to Madagor, where the Natives treacherously got one of his men.

An Introduction to Astronomy, by William Leybourn and Robert Morden, 1702.

Late in the seventeenth century its meaning widened to refer to anything at all that had gone before. It became common in lists, frequently in abbreviated form as do.

By the way, ditto could at one time also be a verb, to say ditto to, meaning to endorse or agree with something said by somebody else:

Mr Cruger, being called upon to follow him after one of these harangues, was so lost in admiration that he could only cry out, with the genuine enthusiasm of the counting-house, “I say ditto to Mr. Burke! I say ditto to Mr. Burke!”

Quoted in Select British Eloquence, by Chauncey Allen Goodrich, 1853. The Burke in question is the celebrated orator Edmund Burke, at election hustings in 1774. The anecdote became sufficiently famous that “I say ditto to Mr Burke!” was a catchphrase in the nineteenth century meaning “I agree!” The idea is far from dead: in the US today millions of Americans who enthusiastically agree with the right-wing broadcaster Rush Limbaugh are proud to call themselves dittoheads.

You could also at one time, Jonathon Green reminds me, be dressed in a suit of dittoes. This was one in which the jacket, waistcoat and trousers were all the same colour:

At the same time, I should respectfully advise him not to part his hair down the middle; not to be in the habit of perambulating Pall Mall in a suit of “dittoes” and a pot-hat; and not to wear fancy shirts, nor a horse-shoe pin in his cravat.

London Up to Date, by George Augustus Sala, 1896.

Page created 4 Apr. 2009

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Last modified: 4 April 2009.