Posts Tagged ‘jot and tittle’

On my Twitter feed and companion site, Tweetionary, I’ve been running a “happy pairs” fortnight, where each day there’s been two etymologies for a pair of words, such as “nook and cranny,” “fast and furious,” “cloak and dagger,” and “rock and roll.” After I announced I was doing this, one of my Twitter friends (@GLHancock) commented, ” Hope you do ‘jot & tittle’ or ‘tiddle.’

Jot or tittle

Jot or/and Tittle

Well, this was a new one to me, and yet another example of how I seem to know less and less as I get older. The only wisdom that appears to have come with age for me is that I am pretty certain that I know very little, and every day I find something new that reminds me of the truth of such a position.

Still, ever one for learning new things, armed with the OED and Internet I was able to find all I needed to know about jots and tittles. But first, what does the phrase “jot and tittle” mean?

The general meaning is something along the lines of “the smallest part,” “a miniscule amount,” or “the tiniest detail.” The earliest reference is from the Gospel of Matthew and reads;

For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.”  (Matthew 5:17-18)

The OED cites the Wycliffe Bible where we find;

Til heuen and erthe passe, oon i [gloss that is leste lettre], or titil shal nat passe fro the lawe, til alle thingis be don.

The phrase seems to vary between “jot or tittle” and “jot and tittle.” [1] The quote above definitely references the or version, and a quick Google search shows that the and version scores a Ghit[2] of 88,400, whereas the or version comes out with a respectable 252,000. I also measured the Bhit score [3] to find “jot or tittle” scoring 276,000 hits against “jot and tittle” with 303,000. Seems like Google and Microsoft disagree! In all honesty, choosing the and or the or is unlikely to make any difference to the meaning, so it would be a particularly rabid and pedantic etymologist who would want to prescribe either of these as “correct.”

I then checked the 450 million words of the Corpus of Contemporary American, or COCA. Here I discovered that the and version scored 9 while the or version only got 4. So according to the COCA, “jot and tittle” is twice as popular as “jot or tittle.” It seems that COCA and Google disagree!

Alas, the British National Corpus was equally as unhelpful. I suppose one could argue that “jot or tittle” scoring 2 against “jot and tittle’s” zero suggests the former is more common, but these are hardly decisive numbers. It’s probably safe to say that you can pretty much choose whichever you prefer and claim to be correct. But putting aside the discussion about which is the more frequent version, what on earth are jots and tittles anyway?

A jot is “a very small amount” and if you “care not a jot,” you mean you care very little. It first makes an appearance in English in the 15th century and can be traced back to the Greek word iota(iώτα0, which as well as being the name of the ninth letter of the Greek alphabet also means “a small amount.” It is the smallest letter in that alphabet, hence its name. It was first written in English as either iot or iote but the “i” became a “j” because of its similarity, and the iota became a jot.

For those who like obscure and archaic word meanings, at one time, the word joy meant “a person of small intelligence, or of low condition.” The word appears in Langland’s Piers Plowman in 1362 but didn’t really catch on as a long-term connotation. Clearly the metaphorical origin of the association was smallness.

The word tittle has a much more interesting history. It looks very similar to title and that’s no accident. The Latin titulus was used to describe an inscription placed above or below something, such as a placard in a theater. Then, in the 14th century, it began to be used more specifically to refer to a small stroke in writing, such as the dot over an i. The Latin for such a stroke was apex, which meant “point or stroke” but when John Wycliffe created the Wycliffe Bible [4], he translated apex as tittle, obviously influenced by the fact that tittle was already being used to describe something “placed above.”

wycliffe bible

Wycliffe’s Bible

Eventually this took on the extended meaning of a small or miniscule amount, and modern biblical translations opt for dropping the jot and tittle to replace them with “letters and pens”:

New International Version (1984): I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.

New American Standard Version (1995): For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished.

The good old King James version resists the temptation to deviate from the immutable word of God and stands fast with jots and tittles:

King James 2000 Version: For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.

However, the American King James version strays from righteousness:

American King James Version: For truly I say to you, Till heaven and earth pass, one stroke or one pronunciation mark shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.

So there you have it: just over 1000 words to describe something that means “small and miniscule.” Perhaps the next post should be on oxymoron!

[1] Tittle also appears as tiddle but this is a phonetic variation rather than different etymologies. For the /t/ to become a d/ is almost obligatory in US speech, where the phenomenon of the “intevocalic ‘d'” is well known. Pronouncing your “t’s” in the middle of a word is pretty much a shibboleth for spotting Brits in the US.

[2] Ghit is short for “Google hit” and it’s the number of search hits you get when using the Google search engine.

[3] If a Ghit is a Google hit, there’s no prize for guessing that a Bhit is a Bing hit. A “bong hit” is just one vowel modification away from “Bing” but has a different meaning!

[4] John Wycliffe is unlikely to have written the Wycliffe Bible all by himself. Biblical scholars believe that the bible was the work of a small group of people, with Wycliffe being the translator of just the New Testament.

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