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This was a small spinning top. Strictly and originally, it wasn’t just any spinning top, but one with four sides, each with a letter on it that decided the outcome of a player’s turn in a game. The letters were conventionally TADN, the initials of Latin words, one of them being totum, take everything from the pot. This supplied the old name of the device, the initial T, expanded to tee, being added later. The other letters stood for aufer, take one stake from the pot, depone, put one stake into the pot, and nihil, do nothing. The letters were later changed to fit English words, but the old name remained, though it can sometimes mean a four-sided die instead. Despite its form, teetotum has no connection with teetotal.

It is an ancient device, once common in adult gambling, but by the nineteenth century was largely restricted to children’s games. The device was so familiar that it was commonly used to refer to the act of spinning around, as Mary Kingsley did in her Travels in West Africa: “We spun round and round for a few seconds, like a teetotum, I steering the whole time for all I was worth, and then the current dragged the canoe ignominiously down river, tail foremost”. It appears in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass: “‘Are you a child or a teetotum?’ the Sheep said, as she took up another pair of needles. ‘You’ll make me giddy soon, if you go on turning round like that.’” It isn’t surprising that the word should have taken on the broader sense of spinning top, losing the connection with a game of chance.

The toy has had many local or dialect names, such as jenny-spinner, whirligig, and scopperil, the last of these once known in the Midlands and North of England; these names often referred to an improvised top, perhaps made from a button with a piece of wood through it, rather than to a method of playing a game of chance. Jews will know dreidel (from a Yiddish word related to German drehen, to turn), similarly a four-sided spinning top that was used especially for a children’s game played at Hanukkah. This has the Hebrew letters nun, gimel, he and shin on it. The letters are often said to spell out the initials of the Hebrew phrase “a great miracle happened there” (the miracle being the tiny amount of oil that burned for eight days in the Temple in Jerusalem) but in the game meant “do nothing”, “take all”, “take half” and “put in”.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 10 Jan. 2004

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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.
This page URL: http://www.worldwidewords.org/weirdwords/ww-tee1.htm
Last modified: 10 January 2004.