Tidy

Besides, the last time I tried, something growled at me from the corner

Dear Word Detective:  As I was tidying up my desk, I stopped to ponder the word “tidy.” It means “neat and orderly” but it can also mean a considerable amount of something, as in “she inherited a tidy sum of money.”  Wouldn’t that be nice?  The dictionary says that it comes from “tidi” meaning “in season or healthy.”  Can you shed some light into this history? — Margherita.

Why, sure.  Incidentally, you and I are birds of a feather.  I’ve been attempting to tidy up my desk (the whole office, actually) for years, but I never get very far before the pondering sets in and my tidying grinds to an untidy halt.  I think my main problem is the books.  I get halfway down a stack and suddenly remember something especially good in one of them and go looking for it, and that’s it for the day.  Maybe I should take my glasses off before I try to tidy up.

“Tidy” is an interesting little word, and though all our modern English words have evolved at least a little over the course of the centuries, “tidy” has been more peripatetic than most.

The root of “tidy” is the prehistoric Germanic root “tidiz,” meaning “time,” more precisely “a specific portion of time.”  That Germanic “tidiz” is also the source of our modern English word “time” as well as of “tide.”  Although we think of “tide” today as meaning the cyclical rise and fall of the sea, that meaning only arose in the 14th century, and originally “tide” meant simply “time” or “season.”  This is the sense preserved in words such as “Yuletide,” meaning the Christmas season.  The reason for that side trip into “tide” is that “tidy” is essentially simply an adverbial form of “tide” in the old “time” sense.  Thus, when “tidy” first appeared in English in the 13th century, it meant “at the proper time,” i.e., “timely,” “in season” (and therefore “healthy”), or “opportune” (and therefore “excellent”).

That sense of “tidy” meaning “excellent” then evolved into meaning “of good character, brave, worthy,” but by the 19th century had been diluted to meaning “pretty good” or “pretty big,” a sense we still use in speaking of a “tidy” fortune, not billions but enough to live on comfortably.

Applied to persons, “tidy” during the 18th century meant “neat in dress or habits,” and applied to a household, “neatly arranged and in proper order” (“There was not a neater, more scrupulously tidy, or more punctiliously ordered house in Clerkenwell,” Dickens, 1840).  This is the adjective sense of “tidy” that gave us, in the 19th century, the verb “to tidy,” meaning “to make clean and orderly, to arrange neatly.”  So “tidy,” a word that originally meant “at the proper time,” came to mean “neat and clean.”

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