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How ‘tootsie’ became ‘toots’

Q: How come youse did a whole story on the term “darn tootin’ ” without letting us square guys know where “toots” comes from? I know you can toast your tootsies next to a nice warm fire, but how did feet become dames?

A: The slang use of “toots” to address a woman probably comes from the colloquial use of “tootsie” for a foot—a usage that began life in the mid-19th century as a grown-up’s imitation of baby talk.

Some standard dictionaries spell it “tootsie” (our preference) and others use “tootsy.” Either way, the plural is “tootsies.”

The earliest example we’ve found is from an 1842 article in Punch: “the small children have been rapidly undressed and put to bed with the wild notion that they will stay there, and will not walk calmly down stairs three or four hours afterwards in their night-gowns, with their little naked white tootsy-pootsies (the nursery patois for tiny feet) pattering on the cold floor-cloth.”

The passage is from “The Physiology of London Evening Parties,” a series of humorous sketches in Punch or the London Charivari, Vol. 2, January to June, 1842. Albert Richard Smith, the English author of the anonymous sketches, later published slightly revised versions under his own name in two collections of his work, The Wassail-Bowl (1843) and The Physiology of Evening Parties (1846).

Smith, an explorer as well as a writer, is also responsible for the first example we’ve seen of “tootsie” used to address a woman:

“ ‘Tootsy,’ said Mr. Gudge to his much better half, in the breakfast room, whilst he tied a shawl round his neck before the looking-glass, ‘Tootsy, where’s Sir F’s note?’ ” (from his novel The Struggles and Adventures of Christopher Tadpole at Home and Abroad, 1848).

The Oxford English Dictionary has later appearances of the word in both of those senses. It defines “tootsie” in the first sense as “a playful or endearing name for a child’s or a woman’s small foot.” It defines the second sense as “a woman, a girl; a sweetheart; occasionally applied to a male lover.”

The OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, spells the term “tootsy” in both senses, but notes that it also appears in print as “tootsie,” “tootsey-wootsey,” and “tootsie-wootsie.”

The dictionary explains that the word originally represented “a child’s pronunciation of foot.” Oxford’s earliest citation is from The Rose and the Ring (1855), William Makepeace Thackeray’s allegorical novel about royal intrigues in the fictional kingdoms of Paflagonia and Crim Tartary.

Here a maid is ousted from the royal household in Paflagonia. Stripped of her servant’s outfit and given the tattered clothes she once wore, minus a shoe, the maid laments: “As for the shoe, what was she to do with one poor little tootsey sandal?”

The dictionary’s earliest example for the second sense is from a letter written by the American poet Wallace Stevens to his mother on July 23, 1895: “I can be your own dearest tootsey wootsey.”

Here’s a somewhat earlier example we’ve found in which  “tootsie wootsie” is used for a woman: “Hic. Didn’t tush a drop, m’ dear. ’M only ’toxicated with joy at seeing m’ own (hic) darling ’ittle tootsie wootsie once more (hic).” From an item about a tippler in the “By the Way” column of the Harvard Lampoon, Feb. 23, 1891.

The use of the shortened form “toots” as a nickname for a girl showed up in the late 19th century. The earliest example we’ve seen is from Wynema: A Child of the Forest (1891), a novel by Sophia Alice Callahan:

“It would seem as yesterday if Robin were not such a tall, broad-shouldered fellow, really towering over us all; and I, a cross-grained, wrinkled spinster; and Toots putting on young lady’s airs—I suppose we shall have to call her Bessie, now.”

The use of the nickname for women showed up in the early 20th century, followed by its use for men (the restaurateur Toots Shor, the jazz musician Toots Thielemans, and so on).

The earliest feminine example we’ve seen is from “The First of the Cuties,” a short story by Philip Curtiss in the March 1920 issue of Everybody’s Magazine:

“Toots Fleming, in short, was the first of the cuties, the first of that long line of sisters who ever since have roused a feminine flutter all through the audience by skipping into the picture with the figure of twenty years and the dress of ten, with plump bare legs, with gingham dresses torn at the shoulder, with tomboy manners for winning the hearts of fabulous heroes and angel-child manners for softening the hearts of incredible villains.”

The term “toots” soon came to be used “as a familiar form of address” for a girl or woman, according to OED, which describes the usage as “slang (originally and chiefly U.S.)” and “probably abbreviation of tootsy.”

The dictionary’s first citation is from a 1936 query in the journal American Speech from a reader who wonders if the nickname “toots” is “the ancestor of the present mode of address in ‘O.K., toots!’, ‘Hello, toots!’ etc.” However, we found an earlier example in the title and lyrics of the 1934 song “Okay Toots,” by Walter Donaldson (music) and Gus Kahn (lyrics):

Okay Toots,
If you like me like I like you,
We know nobody new will do,
It’s okay Toots!

Okay Toots,
If you say yes, then I say yes,
And if you say no, then it’s no go,
It’s okay Toots!

The song was first recorded on Sept.  14, 1934, by Loretta Lee with George Hall and the Hotel Taft Orchestra. Eddie Cantor sang it in the film Kid Millions, which was released on Oct. 11, 1934.

Eric Partridge suggests in A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English (8th ed.) that this “toots” usage may have been inspired by the chorus of “Toot, Toot, Tootsie! (Goo’ Bye),” a 1922 song with lyrics and music by Gus Kahn, Ernie Erdman, and Dan Russo:

Toot, toot, Tootsie, Goo’ Bye!
Toot, toot, Tootsie, don’t cry,
The choo choo train that takes me,
Away from you no words can tell how sad it makes me,
Kiss me, Tootsie, and then,
Do it over again,

Watch for the mail, I’ll never fail,
If you don’t get a letter then you’ll know I’m in jail,
Tut, tut, Tootsie, don’t cry,
Toot, toot, Tootsie, Goo’ Bye!

The song was first recorded in 1922 by Al Jolson with Frank Crumit’s orchestra for Columbia Records. Jolson later sang it in The Jazz Singer (1927), the first feature-length movie with synchronized speech and music.

Getting back to your question, it’s not at all surprising to us that “tootsie,” a cutesy faux-infantile term for a foot, would inspire the use of “tootsie” and later “toots” as terms for a woman. This is similar to the evolution of such words as “baby,” “honey,” “pet,” “sweet,” “sugar,” and “treasure.”

[Update, Jan. 11, 2020. A reader of the blog has written to say, “How could your forget ‘In the Good Old Summertime’ (1902)?” Well, we’ve cited earlier examples of “tootsie wootsie,” but here goes: “You hold her hand and she holds yours, / And that’s a very good sign / That she’s your tootsie wootsie / In the good old summer time.”]

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