Q: I heard you for the first time on a recent broadcast of the Leonard Lopate Show. I was fascinated and wondered if you could help me with a language question. I’m interested in learning about the history of the expression “to a T.”
A: The phrase “to a T” (sometimes written “to a tee”) has meant “exactly, properly, to a nicety” since it first appeared in English more than three hundred years ago, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
The first published reference in the dictionary is from The Humours and Conversations of the Town, a 1693 satirical work by James Wright: “All the under Villages and Towns-men come to him for Redress; which he does to a T.”
Word sleuths have spent a lot of time trying to track down the source of the “T” in the phrase, but the evidence is still inconclusive. That may be why several of the dictionaries in my office give different explanations for the expression.
My old unabridged Webster’s Second, for example, suggests the “T” stands for “T-square,” while Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) says it’s short for “tittle,” or tiny thing.
The Oxford English Dictionary mentions those two explanations as well as the tees in the sports of curling and golf, and the fact that a “T” is properly completed by crossing it.
Reading between the lines, however, it’s apparent that the OED‘s lexicographers think the “tittle” suggestion is the most likely.
For one thing, the “tee” version, which might support a golf or curling origin, didn’t appear in print until 78 years after the phrase first showed up, according to the OED citations.
The earliest “tee” cite is from a 1771 poem by someone identified only as J. Giles: “I’ll tell you where / You may be suited to a tee.”
Does the “T” come from “T-square”? This explanation is a bit more plausible chronologically (the first OED citation for “T square” is from 1701), but there’s no evidence to support the connection between the drafting ruler and the expression.
Or, as the OED says, this theory appears “on investigation to be untenable.” There’s also no evidence to support that business about the crossing of the “T.”
However, the OED points out, “it is notable that to a tittle (i.e. to a prick, dot, jot) was in use nearly a century before ‘to a T’, and in exactly the same constructions.”
The first citation for “to a tittle,” which the dictionary defines as “with minute exactness” or “to the smallest particular,” is from The Woman Hater, a 1607 comedy by Beaumont and Fletcher: “I’ll quote him to a tittle.”
If I had to guess, I’d go with “to a tittle” as the source of “to a T,” but the origin of this expression isn’t known to a T.