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Hoity-toity

This word, another example of the love of English-speaking peoples for reduplicated creations, has had an interesting 360 years since it first appeared in the language. We use it now to mean somebody who is haughty or snobbish or puts on airs. My mental image of a hoity-toity person is one who has his or her nose elevated in continual condemnation.

Look at Fawlty Towers. Every joke is stewed in class resentment. Basil, the Torquay hotelier, is a mass of lower-middle class insecurities. He is infuriated by the hoity-toity airs that his coiffured wife Sybil gives herself.

Daily Mail, 4 May 2012.

When hoity-toity first appeared in the language, however, it had rather a different sense. Take this example:

By the way, Jack, there is generally a certain hoity-toity inelegance of form and manner at seventeen, which in my opinion is not balanc’d by freshness of complexion, the only advantage girls have to boast of.

The History of Emily Montague, by Frances Brooke, 1769.

That isn’t snobbishness. The writer is using an older sense that was by then almost obsolete. About a century ago the editor who created the entry in the Oxford English Dictionary defined that sense as “frolicsome, romping, giddy, flighty”. We might say that the young lady exhibited boisterous or silly behaviour or was coltish.

Hoity-toity derives from the long-obsolete verb hoit, meaning to “indulge in riotous and noisy mirth” (have you hoited recently? it’s supposed to be very good for you) or to “romp inelegantly” (again from the OED; is it even possible to romp elegantly?). Where hoit comes from is uncertain, although an early form suggests a link with hoyden, which is now an unfashionable way to describe a noisy or energetic girl but which at the time could also mean an ignorant or clownish man. This is probably from the Middle Dutch heiden, a heath, hence a yokel; if so, hoyden is a close relative of heathen.

The shift to our current sense probably came about through a variation, highty-tighty, that was current between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries. The first part may have evoked the idea of height and so led to assumptions of superiority, although no such link ever actually existed.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 22 Sep. 2012

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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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Last modified: 22 September 2012.