Not a Jot
At some point, we’ve all been warned to be sure to dot our i’s and cross our t’s. Not that everything needs a name, but have you ever wondered what to call those little dots?
They are in fact called tittles. (Or in some places in America and in the depths of Reddit, the devil’s teardrop.) The word “tittle” itself sounds like a clever portmanteau of tiny and little; clever because that’s exactly what it is. Also clever as despite its smallness, it simultaneously has huge consequences on how words are understood, pronounced and used, every single day.
Those little dots are what keep our i’s and j’s from being mistaken for l’s or other letters with vertical strokes, like u, m and n. They are the everyday heroes of cursive or just plain messy handwriting. The hard work they do to keep our communication clear means we owe the humble tittle a moment of acknowledgement and respect.
These hard working dots are part of a family of diacritical marks - a point, sign or squiggle added or attached to a letter or character to indicate stress, special pronunciation or unusual sounds. English typically uses diacritical marks on loan from other languages, but they also appear when we need to point out ownership, or want to skip a letter in a word.
Find me in the café, drinking a piña colada … and don’t forget the lady’s shoes!
Looking closely, it becomes apparent that language, already complex in letters and words, has another layer of complexity made up of dashes and dots … jots and tittles.
Have you also ever wondered what to call the cross of a t? That would be a jot.
The words themselves have been amongst us for centuries, the expression "not a jot or tittle", meaning "not the smallest amount". Additionally, the phrase “to a T” is thought to be shorthand for “to a tittle”, meaning something done exactly right. It refers to the tiny detail of a tittle, suggesting that every minor detail was correct. First found in the following passage from Edward Hall’s Chronicles circa 1548:
“I then … began to dispute with my selfe, little considerynge that thus my earnest was turned even to a tittyl not so good as, estamen.”
So, when in life, we are asked to be precise and pay attention to detail, let’s start as we mean to go on. Let’s be sure we tittle our i’s and j’s, jot our t’s and give thanks to this small dot that leaves a big mark.
Wikipedia References: Tittle & Edward Hall
1. Red Tittles
2. Not Jots
3. Twitter Credit: @zampedigallina
I thought of this post when I came across a recent Mary Norris (the Comma Queen) piece in the New Yorker, about hyphens.. https://www.newyorker.com/culture/comma-queen/how-to-use-or-not-use-a-hyphen