Q: When Matthew Goode said “neat and tidy-ish” on Downton Abbey, I thought it unlikely that this phrase could be THAT old. Can you tell me anything about it?
A: As far as we can tell, the phrase “neat and tidy-ish” (with or without the hyphen) is relatively new, showing up less than 10 years ago. However, the expression “neat and tidy” dates from the late 1700s, and the word “tidyish” has been around almost as long.
So Henry Talbot, the character played by Matthew Goode in the TV series Downton Abbey, could conceivably have used the phrase “neat and tidy-ish” with his wife-to-be, Lady Mary Crawley, in a scene set in London on May 18, 1925:
Mary (referring to her son’s well-ordered prospects): “So it’s very neat and tidy.”
Henry: “Neat and tidy-ish.”
As for the etymology here, the adjective “neat” meant elegant and simple when it showed up in in the 15th century. “Tidy” meant in good condition, attractive, or timely when it appeared in the 14th century.
“Neat” is ultimately derived from nitidus, Latin for elegant or shiny, according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins, while “tidy” is a derivative of “tide,” which referred to time in Old English, where it was spelled tid.
(An unrelated Old English noun of Germanic origin, neat, meant a cow, ox, or other bovine, but the usage is rarely seen today except in neat’s-foot oil, made from the feet and shin bones of cattle.)
The adjective “neat” came to mean orderly and clean in the late 16th century, while “tidy” took on those senses in the 17th and 18th centuries.
The earliest example that we could find for “tidy-ish” or “tidyish” is from an 1825 article in the American Farmer that refers to “tidyish meat” (that is, meat in good condition).
And here’s an example that uses “tidyish” to mean attractive, from a comedy by Delia Caroline Swarbreck, Who Could Believe It? (1830): “Oh a tidyish looking young woman, my lady.”
In “The War Correspondent,” a short story from the June 16, 1877, issue of the English literary magazine Once a Week, “tidyish” is used in the orderly sense.
Here the narrator is interviewing an English soldier-of-fortune working for the Turkish Sultan: “ ‘But you’ve got your army in pretty good order, have you not?’ I said. ‘Tidyish—tidyish, my son. They haven’t much stomach for fighting, unless there’s something to be got by it.’ ”
The word “tidyish” is used in this case to mean sort of tidy—a qualified tidy. That’s the way it’s generally used in the examples we’ve found in searches of online databases. And that’s the way Henry Talbot seems to be using it in Downton Abbey.
The suffix “-ish” has been added to adjectives since sometime before 1400 to mean “of the nature of, approaching the quality of, somewhat,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
The oldest example that we’ve seen for “neat and tidy” is from The Sunday-School Catechist, a 1788 book by Sarah Trimmer about how to run a Sunday School for poor children.
A girl should be encouraged to do housekeeping, Trimmer writes, so her mother will be comforted “when she returns home from a hard day’s work to find her own little place neat and tidy.”
And the earliest written example we’ve seen for “neat and tidyish” (hyphenated or hyphenless) is from a Nov. 12, 2007, comment on Zoids Evolution, a fansite based on the Zoid animated series and collectibles:
“Because I was actually curious as to what my collection consisted of, I compiled a list with some help and made it all neat and tidy-ish.”
A linguist would refer to “neat and tidy” or “neat and tidyish,” two words paired together in an idiomatic expression, as a binomial pair or an irreversible binomial.
Sir Ernest Gowers, who edited the 1965 second edition of Fowler’s Modern English Usage, has referred to these pairs, joined by the conjunctions “and” or “or,” as Siamese twins.
The pairs can be made up of nouns (“fish and chips”), adjectives (“quick and dirty”), verbs (“win or lose”). Some pairs consist of synonyms (“cease and desist”) while others consist of antonyms (“back and forth”).
Gowers writes that the abundance of synonymous pairs in English “is perhaps partly attributable to legal language, where the multiplication of near-synonyms is a normal precaution against too narrow an interpretation.”
He adds that the wording in the Book of Common Prayer, “seldom content with one word if two can be used, may also have had something to do with it.”
Gowers recommends breaking up or rephrasing pairs of synonyms that are merely redundant. Is “neat and tidy” redundant? We don’t think so. “Neat and tidy” strikes us as more conversational, more friendly, than either “neat” or “tidy.”
A pedant would insist on a “neat” desk or a “tidy” one. Ours is “neat and tidy.” Or, rather, “neat and tidyish.”