To a T

You missed a spot.

Dear Word Detective:  I recently received an e-mail from friends enjoying a cruise who described conditions on board as “most luxurious with service to a tee.” Putting aside my trip envy, I’m wondering: Why is outstanding service is described as to a “tee”? — Charlene.

E-mail on a cruise ship? Call me a Luddite, but I thought the whole point of cruises was to escape such things. Then again, my only experience of ocean travel was a voyage across the Atlantic on the Queen Elizabeth as a kid. No radio, no TV. It was very peaceful, like being marooned at your grandparents’ house for a week. Being trapped on a ship full of people yammering into their cell phones while they work on their Facebook updates doesn’t sound like a vacation to me. It sounds like a floating Starbucks.

OK, enough geezing. That’s a good question, and the answer leads down an interesting path to several other words and phrases.

“To a T” or “to a tee,” meaning “exactly, precisely, perfectly” is an older expression than you might think, dating all the way back to the late 17th century (“All the under Villages and Towns-men come to him for Redress; which he does to a T,” 1693). There’s been a lot of talk in the news about the recent discovery of a “Goldilocks planet” in a remote star system, one perfectly suitable to life as we know it. “To a T” denotes that “Goldilocks” state: not too much, not too little, just right.

There have been several suggestions as to what the “T” in the expression might represent, including a golf “tee,” the “tee” in the sport of curling (the center of the scoring area), a “t-square” and even a “t-shirt,” but none of these have any actual evidence in their favor.  (“T-shirt,” referring to the simple silhouette of the garment, first appeared in the 1920s, so that’s definitely not the source).

The “T” in “to a T” was probably originally short for a word beginning with “T,” and the word considered most likely is “tittle,” meaning “a very small part of something” or “a very small amount.” One powerful argument for “tittle” being the source of our “T” is the fact that “to a tittle,” meaning exactly the same thing as “to a T,” was in common use almost a century before “to a T” appeared.

If “tittle” sounds familiar, it’s because the phrase “jot and tittle” (or “jot or tittle”), meaning “every little point” or “the tiniest amount,” is a slightly antiquated but still common English idiom (“[T]here’s a real insider dogfight going on over every jot and tittle of insurance company expenditures,” Dallas Morning News, 9/24/10).

“Tittle” is, etymologically, actually the same word as “title” (as of a book), but “tittle” developed the special sense early on of “a small stroke in print or writing,” such as the dot over an “i,” a cross mark on a “t” or an accent mark. From there “tittle” moved on to being used to mean anything very, very small. “Jot” also means “a tiny mark or amount,” and was also originally used to mean a small mark made with a pen. (That “small mark” sense lives on in our use of “jot” as a verb meaning “to write a brief note.”) The root of “jot,” interestingly, is the Greek word “iota,” which was the equivalent of our Arabic “I” and the smallest letter in the Greek alphabet. And because you can, evidently, never have enough words for “nearly nothing,” we still use the word “iota” to mean “a tiny amount” (“We will not part with one iota of our privileges,” 1863).

Incidentally, the proverbial admonition “be sure to cross your t’s and dot your i’s,” meaning to double-check all the details of your work, is not only good advice but also a neat illustration of the progress of “tittle,” “jot” and “iota” from literal use in handwriting to their modern figurative uses.

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