That’s the ticket!

Pleased as punch.

Dear Word Detective: What is the intended meaning of the expression “That’s the ticket!” and where does it come from? — Gerd J. Mangels.

You realize, of course, that you’ve actually asked two questions, and that if I answer both some small child in New Zealand will go to bed still wondering where “lollygag” came from. In fact, it has come to my attention that while US citizens make up only three percent of the world’s population, they ask more than sixty percent of the questions I receive. Inasmuch as I am a scarce resource (and fading by the day), I think we need a cap and trade system around here. I’ll have the caps made, y’all can trade them ’til you get one that fits, and I’ll be out back counting chipmunks.


Cash value three groats.

OK, I’m back. I can’t tell the darn things apart anyway. The first question you’ve asked is the easy one. “That’s the ticket!” is a slang expression, dating back at least to the early 19th century, meaning “That’s just what is needed” or “That’s perfect.” The phrase hasn’t changed its form since it first appeared (“They ought to be hanged, sir, (that’s the ticket, and he’d whop the leader),” 1838), but it was freshly popularized by the character Tommy Flanagan, Pathological Liar, created by comedian Jon Lovitz on NBC’s Saturday Night Live in the 1980s. The core of “that’s the ticket” is the use of “ticket” to mean “just the right thing” or “the proper way or course of action,” also dating back to the early 1800s, and today often found in the form “just the ticket” (“… such a referendum might be just the ticket to settle this issue, if only for a while,” Naples (FL) Daily News, 6/13/09). As you might imagine, “that’s the ticket” and “just the ticket” are favorite puns of political writers, movie and theater reviewers, and reporters stuck with covering parking disputes.

So, on to question number two: exactly how did “ticket” come to mean “the right thing, the perfect choice, etc.”? One theory suggests that “that’s the ticket” is drawn from the French phrase “c’est l’etiquette,” meaning “that’s the proper thing or course of action,” but that is considered unlikely. Interestingly, “etiquette” itself is derived from the Old French “estiquette,” meaning “ticket or label,” which originally referred to small cards given to visitors to the Royal Court containing instructions for proper behavior.

More likely sources for “ticket” in this “just the right thing” or “just what is needed” sense include political “tickets” (roster of one party’s candidates), tickets for meals at soup kitchens given out by charities (a theory bolstered by the existence of the 18th century phrase “that’s the ticket for soup”), or a winning lottery ticket. It might, however, just reflect the general sense of “ticket,” common since the 17th century, meaning “guarantee of some kind of benefit,” also found in such phrases as “ticket to success” and “write your own ticket.”

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