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To a T

Q From Laura Cilento: Where did the phrase to the tee come from?

A Stop a moment. Have you heard it in that form, or might you be mishearing to a T? I haven’t come across your form and can’t be sure it’s the same phrase because you haven’t given its meaning. Just to keep the ball rolling, I’ll explain to a T.

To say to a T means that something is exactly or precisely so. An example appeared in a film review in the Fresno Bee on 30 September 2005: “As Oliver, Barney Clark fits the description to a T: He’s small, angelic and suitably cowed by all the world has to throw at him.” And Jerome K Jerome had some fun with it in Three Men in a Boat in 1889: “Harris said, however, that the river would suit him to a ‘T’. I don’t know what a ‘T’ is (except a sixpenny one, which includes bread-and-butter and cake ad lib., and is cheap at the price, if you haven’t had any dinner). It seems to suit everybody, however, which is greatly to its credit.”

You can see from Jerome’s usage that the expression is quite old. In fact, it was first written down almost exactly two centuries before. That rules out the possibility that it’s connected with T-shirt, which has been suggested as the origin, but which isn’t recorded before about 1920. Finding out where it came from turns out to be rather difficult — there are several candidates, but nobody knows for sure. The obvious suggestion is that it comes from a tee in golf (or just possibly curling). Another is that it refers to a T square (a term that appears at about the same date), or to the correct completion of the letter t by crossing it. No evidence exists that links any of these to the expression.

The origin that most experts point to, rather cautiously, involves T being the first letter of a word. If this is the case, then tittle is easily the most likely source, since to a tittle was in use in exactly the same sense for nearly a century before to a T appeared (it’s first recorded in a play by Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher of 1607 with the title Woman Hater: “I’ll quote him to a tittle”).

We know tittle now mostly in the set expression jot or tittle, meaning some very small amount and in which both words refer to a tiny quantity. Jot comes via Latin from Greek iota, the smallest letter of the Greek alphabet, which we also still use to refer to some minuscule amount; tittle is from the same Latin word that has given us title, but has usually been taken to mean a small stroke or mark in writing, notably the dot over the letter i.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 5 Nov. 2005

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
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Last modified: 5 November 2005.