Q: Years ago, I read somewhere that the Cockney “ta” actually stood for “thanks awfully.” It then evolved into “ta-ta” as an exit term because humans love to play around with (and repeat) sounds. Just wanted to offer that theory.
A: No, “ta” is not an acronym for “thanks awfully,” it’s not Cockney, and it didn’t beget “ta-ta” (more on this later). However, it does have a connection with “thank you.”
The interjection “ta,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, originated as “an infantile form of ‘thank-you’ ” that was first recorded in the late 18th century.
We expect that since the word was used as intimate nursery babble, it was around for many years before it was recorded for posterity in writing.
It got its start in British usage and is still more common in the UK than in the US.
Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) identifies “ta” as a British expression. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) labels it “chiefly British,” and describes it as a “baby-talk alteration of thank you.”
The OED’s earliest example is from a letter written in 1772 by Mary Granville, better known as Mrs. Delany: “You would not say ‘Ta’ to me for my congratulation.” (It appears in her memoir, Life & Correspondence, which wasn’t published until 1861.)
Mrs. Delany’s note was written to her one-year-old great-niece on the occasion of her first birthday, so the “ta” here was intended to echo a babyish version of “thank you.”
Here’s another childish example, from Israel Zangwill’s novel Children of the Ghetto 1892): “Give it me. I’ll say ‘ta’ so nicely.” (In this party scene, adults use baby-talk jokingly while a man teases his lover with an engagement ring.)
As the OED says, this infantile “ta” has passed into colloquial use among adults. Oxford gives a few modern examples, including these:
“ ‘Ta,’ he said, slipping the card into the back pocket of his jeans.” (From Richard Gordon’s novel Doctor on the Boil, 1970.)
“ ‘You know your way, don’t you?’ ‘Ta, love.’ ” (From Douglas Clark’s mystery The Longest Pleasure, 1981.)
So while “ta” isn’t an acronym for “thanks awfully,” it’s close in meaning.
As for “ta-ta,” the other expression you’ve asked about, it’s another adult usage to graduate from nursery school.
As we’ve written before on our blog, “ta-ta” originated as an infantile form of “goodbye.” It was first recorded in the 1820s, and soon passed into colloquial (that is, spoken) adult usage.
An expanded version, “ta-ta for now,” became a popular British catchphrase in the 1940s, and was shortened in the later ’40s to the initialism “TTFN.”