Q From Katya Epstein:: Today I learned that on a film set, gear is carried in a ditty bag. Why is it called this?
A Ditty bag comes from the days of sailing ships:
On each side of the berth-deck, termed “the wings,” are racks for the accommodation of canvass bags; each man has one in which he keeps his clothes, and a little bag or reticule called “a ditty bag,” containing all the implements of his housewifery, such as thimble, needles, tapes, thread, &c, for you must know that every genuine seaman is always his own tailor, hatter, and very frequently his own shoemaker.
The Journal of Belles Lettres, Philadelphia, 1833.
So it had almost exactly the same sense as housewife (sometimes written and frequently said as hussif), which was known at the time not only on board ship but also in the army and in civilian life.
The quotation above is the earliest example I’ve so far found. The term starts to appear at about the same time in descriptions of seafaring both in the US and the UK, implying an earlier common origin. My guess is that it was used by sailors for many decades before it reached print.
Ditty bag remained a term exclusively of the sea until the twentieth century. Landlubbers took it up and used it for any small cloth container for items of kit or miscellaneous stuff. It’s almost completely defunct in the UK but survives widely in north America in all sorts of situations. So it’s unsurprising that you have found it in the film business.
There’s also ditty box, now rarely used but at one time also known to sailors, mentioned in a mildly patronising article about a tour of a ship of Her Majesty’s Navy (Jack is the usual generic term for a sailor):
Jack likes to do a bit of writing now and then to one of his old sweethearts, and for that purpose he is allowed a sort of writing-desk, which he calls his ditty box, where he keeps portraits and love-letters, and charms, and all those little trinkets which remind him of “home, sweet home,” when far away he is tossed about on the mighty deep.
Western Daily Press (Bristol, UK), 12 Sep. 1864.
The problem is working out where ditty comes from.
The most common origin given in general works repeats the one that Admiral W H Smyth gave in his Sailor’s Word-Book of 1867; he said it “derives its name from the dittis or Manchester stuff of which it was once made”. Manchester stuff was cotton goods of any sort, from the roughest to the finest, given that name because the city of Manchester was then the world centre of the cotton-weaving industry. This is why Manchester department is still used in some stores in Australia and New Zealand for the section selling cotton goods such as sheets and towels. However, nobody has found dittis or its presumed singular ditti anywhere.
Other suggestions that don’t survive inspection are that it’s from ditto (a bag or box for dittos or a second suit of clothes, on the assumption that a sailor’s wardrobe was limited); that it’s from a modified form of kitty-bag, a diminutive of kitbag; or that — as a correspondent to Notes and Queries wrote in 1878 — it “derived from a nearly obsolete form of deft or dight; the former meaning efficient, proper, decent, and the latter to arrange, adorn, dress”. Another inventive writer to the same journal argued that a ditty box was about the right size to store sheet music, which would make it the same word as ditty for a short or simple song.
Dictionaries mostly admit bafflement. A few, among them the Collins and Macquarie dictionaries, suggest the word is from India, being a version of the obsolete dutty for calico, which derives from the Hindi word dhoti for a loincloth. Eric Partridge argued for dutty in his Origins in 1956 and the term is noted in several modern reference works, one of which describes it as “a type of calico made of very thick and strong texture and used as sail cloth”. The earliest written reference to it seems to be in James Halliwell’s Dictionary of Archaic and Provincial Words of 1847.
For a sailor to make a bag from sailcloth seems eminently likely and this is a plausible origin for ditty bag. Admiral Smyth presumably heard or remembered dutty as ditti. We may guess that ditty box was derived from it at some later date, when the original meanings of dutty and ditty had been lost and ditty had come to imply a small container for personal items.