Q From Anthony Lauder: My wife is Czech, and recently came across the English phrase the year dot. I explained that it means “a long time ago” but was stumped as to why. Can you possibly shed some light on the origins of this please?
A No problem.
It’s tied to the idea of smallness. Ever since dot came back into the language in the sixteenth century (it had been recorded just the once in Old English, but then disappeared) it has meant something extremely small — a minute speck, including a tiny mark made by the nib of a pen, such as the dot over the letter i.
Sometime around the start of the eighteenth century, this idea led to the idiom to a dot, exactly or precisely alike, as equal as two minute dots. The Oxford English Dictionary records it first in a play in which two characters are comparing a letter and its copy:
Lady Trap: Are you blind? they are both alike to a tittle.
Sir Positive: To a dot. Her hand to a dot.
Love in Several Masques, by Henry Fielding, 1728.
This is an example from much later:
I see the handbill myself. It tells all about him, to a dot — paints him like a picture, and tells the plantation he’s from, below Newrleans.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain, 1884.
Sometime around the middle of the nineteenth century, people began to speak of the year dot, meaning some notional date that’s long in the past. This seems to have been built on the notion of a time that’s so vanishingly distant it appears as a dot about which we can discern nothing. Some writers suggest it might refer in particular to that mythical year 0 between 1BC and 1AD, but I’m not convinced that users have ever thought the year dot to be that far back.
This is its first appearance that I can find; a correspondent is complaining about the state of customs officers’ uniforms:
Some of the liveries I think, to use a homely phrase, were made in the year dot, and such is the liberal pay of the men, that did their pride prompt them to purchase others, their means would not allow them.
Ipswich Journal (Suffolk), 25 Mar 1873. Homely phrase implies that year dot was by then well-known, at least in the writer’s experience.
By the way, you might like to know that, when dot appeared that one time in Old English, it meant the head of a boil; it’s also a relative of an Old High German word for a nipple.