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Tiddlywinks

The BBC regional television weather forecast map for the south-west of England last Friday marked the usual cities such as Bristol and Exeter, but also added Tiddleywink in Wiltshire, an obscure hamlet ignored by gazetteers and all maps except those of largest scale. The BBC was having fun over its inhabitants’ success in persuading the local council to put up road signs to mark this cluster of eight cottages, as up to now people driving past would miss it if they blinked. Those in favour of perpetuating the name did so not only out of local (very local) pride, but because of the name’s associations with word history.

Local historians say that the occupant of one of the cottages used to sell beer to passing cattle drovers. At the time — presumably the eighteenth or early nineteenth century — the slang term for an unlicensed beer-house of this sort was tiddlywink (sometimes kiddlywink) and the name came in time to be attached to the hamlet as a whole.

John Ayto, in the Oxford Dictionary of Rhyming Slang, and Jonathon Green, in the Cassell Dictionary of Slang, both suggest that it was originally rhyming slang (tiddlywink = drink). In the way of such slang, it soon became shortened to tiddly as the name for an alcoholic drink, which by the early twentieth century had become the adjective tiddly for the state of being drunk.

It may be that the first element is a variation on an even older term tiddy for something small, which would make a tiddlywink a small drink (I was side-tracked at this point in my investigation by finding another sense in the OED for tiddy: “In the game of gleek, the four of trumps”. Let’s not go there, at least not at the moment.) Jonathon Green points to yet another form, titley, as in the slang phrase titley and binder, for a glass of beer and a lump of bread and cheese, known from the middle of the nineteenth century.

Some writers suggest (for which read guess) that the second part comes from phrases like to tip the wink, to give somebody a private signal, so suggesting a tiddlywink was a place to which a man slipped off quietly with close friends to have a quick one.

The name of the game of tiddlywinks is even more obscure and turns up in print only in 1857, later than the drink sense. The first few references, named as tiddlywink in the singular, are to a game played with dominoes. Tiddlywinks, for the game played by flicking counters into a pot (aficionados of the modern adult game should not write: I know there’s more to it), is not recorded before a trademark application by Joseph Fincher in 1889, though writers at the end of the century claimed it was a traditional English game (and authorities agree it was indeed invented in England).

If there is any connection between the slang name for a low beer-house and these children’s games, the printed record is entirely silent. I can hardly imagine that the two are directly connected. There’s another story here, but nobody seems to know what it is.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 8 Mar. 2003

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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.

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This page URL: http://www.worldwidewords.org/topicalwords/tw-tid1.htm
Last modified: 8 March 2003.