The Grammarphobia Blog

From Ta to Ta-ta to TTFN

Q: Any idea why the Brits say “ta” to mean “thank you” and “ta-ta” to mean “goodbye”?

A: The Oxford English Dictionary views “ta” (thank you) and “ta-ta” (goodbye) as infantile or nursery expressions that are now also commonly used by adults colloquially—that is, in speech.

No further etymology is given for these characteristically British interjections, so we can assume they got their start as baby talk.

The OED’s first citation for the use of “ta” in writing is from a birthday letter written in 1772 by an Englishwoman, Mary Delany, to her year-old niece:

“My dearest little child, this is your birthday, and I wish you joy of its return; perhaps if you knew what a world you are enter’d into, so abounding with evil you would not say ‘Ta’ to me for my congratulation.” (We’ve gone to the original to expand the quotation.)

This 19th-century example of the word is from Israel Zangwill’s novel Children of the Ghetto (1892): “Give it me. I’ll say ‘ta’ so nicely.”

The later expression “ta-ta,” for “goodbye,” was first recorded in a letter written in 1823 by Sara Hutchinson, who was a friend of Coleridge and Wordsworth:

“Baby I believe has not learnt any new words since Mrs M. wrote last, but she has the old ones very perfect—‘Gone’—‘Ta ta’—‘By bye.’ ”

And here’s a later example from the Victorian era, in Sir Francis Cowley Burnand’s novel Strapmore! (1878): “Ta-ta, little one très cher! Bye-bye.”

Among the many more modern examples given in the OED is this one from L. R. Banks’s novel The L-Shaped Room (1960): “Charlie’ll come up in a few minutes and see how you’re getting on. Tata for now.”

In fact, “ta-ta for now” became so common in Britain that it inspired “TTFN,” an initialism (with or without dots) that the OED says was popularized in the 1940s by a BBC radio program called Itma (the letters stand for “It’s That Man Again”).

The dictionary’s first citation for “TTFN” in writing is from a 1948 book about the show, Itma, 1939-1948, written by its producer, Frank Worsley.

In writing about “the beloved Cockney Charlady, Mrs. Mopp (played by Dorothy Summers),” he says that among “her famous sayings were the letters ‘T.T.F.N.’—a contraction of ‘Ta-ta for now’ with which she made her exit.”

With that, we’ll say “ta” for your question and “ta-ta for now.”

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