Q: In The Pioneers, a book from Time-Life’s The Old West series, a pioneer woman uses “ditto” to mean something like “I agree with what you just said.” I thought the term had its origins in the Xerox copy machine, which created “dittos” of documents.
A: No, the word “ditto” had been around for hundreds of years before Xerox made its first copying machine in the mid-20th century. And Xerox wasn’t even responsible for the use of “ditto” in the copy-machine sense.
We wrote briefly in 2007 about the history of the word “ditto,” but your question gives us a chance to expand on our original post.
English borrowed the word “ditto” in the early 1600s from Italian, where detto (ditto in the Tuscan dialect) was the past participle of dire (to say).
At the time, the Oxford English Dictionary says, detto was used adjectivally in the sense of “aforesaid” to modify dates in Italian “to avoid repetition of the name of a month.”
In an Italian sentence, the OED explains, “December 22” and “December 26” might have been written as 22 di dicembre and 26 detto. And the phrase il detto libro would have meant “the said [or aforesaid] book.”
In the dictionary’s earliest English example of the usage, “ditto” appears in the date sense and means “in or of the month already named; said month.”
Here’s the citation, from a 1625 collection of travel writing by the English cleric Samuel Purchas: “The eight and twentieth ditto, I went … to the Generals Tent.”
This monthly use of “ditto” soon expanded in English to include other senses of “aforesaid” and “the same,” the OED says, such as in accounts and lists “in commercial, office, and colloquial language.”
Oxford’s first example of this expanded use of “ditto” is from The New World of Words (4th ed.), a 1678 dictionary by Edward Phillips:
“Ditto (Italian, said) a word used much in Merchants Accompts, and relation of Foreign news; and signifieth the same place with that immediately beforementioned.”
(The OED notes that a 1696 edition of the dictionary changes “same place” to “the same Commodity or Place,” and that a 1706 edition adds “the aforesaid or the same” to the meaning of ditto in Italian.)
In the 1770s, the usage expanded further, with several other senses of “ditto” showing up.
In a 1775 example in the OED, the verbal phrase “to say ditto to” is used in the sense of “to acquiesce in or express agreement with what has been said by (another).”
The citation, from a biography of Edmund Burke by James Pryor, describes a Parliamentary candidate as using “the language of the counting-house” in support of remarks by Burke: “I say ditto to Mr. Burke.”
In an Aug. 12, 1776, letter from John Adams to his wife, Abigail, during the Revolutionary War, “ditto” is used as a noun meaning “a duplicate or copy; an exact resemblance; a similar thing,” according to the OED:
“Here they wait untill We grow very angry, about them, for Canteens, Camp Kettles, Blanketts, Tents, Shoes, Hose, Arms, Flints, and other Dittoes, while We are under a very critical Solicitude for our Army at New York, on Account of the Insufficiency of Men.”
(We’ve expanded on the Oxford citation to add context.)
The OED doesn’t have any examples of “ditto” used as a noun to mean a duplicate produced by a copying machine. However, it has several citations for the term used to mean a copying machine.
The dictionary describes “Ditto” (with a capital “D”) as “a proprietary name in the U.S. for a kind of duplicating machine that reproduces copies from a master.”
The OED’s earliest citation for the usage is from a July 1, 1919, notice in the Official Gazette of the US Patent Office: “Duplicator Manufacturing Company, Chicago, Ill. … Ditto … Claims use since Dec. 16, 1918.”
The Duplicator Manufacturing Company produced a copier called a Ditto that was somewhat similar to a mimeograph machine. The process involved creating a master copy that would be transferred to a hand-rotated printing cylinder.
The July 28, 1921, issue of the trade magazine Printers’ Ink reported that Duplicator, a Chicago company, “has found it expedient to change its corporate name to that of its advertised product, ‘Ditto.’ The corporate name is now Ditto, Incorporated.”
Although Ditto, Inc., is now defunct, a company called the Ink Technology Corp. has sold ink for the few ditto machines still functioning, according to a Jan. 16, 2007, article by Eric Zorn in the Chicago Tribune.
Finally, we should mention that the word “ditto” ultimately comes from the Latin dicere (to say). And as John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins notes, dicere is the source of many other English words, including one we use a lot: “dictionary.”