Happy birthday to you,
Happy birthday to you,
Happy birthday dear X,
Happy birthday to you.

Those minimalist words, together with the familiar tune they’re sung to, constitute what English calls a ditty, ‘a short, simple song or poem.’

And here’s a shorter way of writing that ditty:

Happy birthday to you,
Ditto (almost),

Might there be a connection between ditto and ditty? Yes, there might be; in fact there is. English took ditto from the Tuscan dialect of Italian (the standard form is detto), where it is the past participle of the verb dire ‘to say.’ Writing ditto amounts to saying ‘[the same as was just] said.’ And it goes without saying (except that I’m saying it) that Tuscan ditto is a cognate of Spanish dicho; both developed from dictum, the Latin past participle of dicere, the predecessor of Spanish decir. In fact English uses the Latin neuter dictum to mean ‘an authoritative statement.’ In a similar way, Spanish dicho is ‘a saying.’

As for ditty, English acquired it from the two-syllable Old French dite, which meant ‘a composition.’ It had developed from the Latin dictatum that has also given us dictado/dictation.

© 2012 Steven Schwartzman


4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. dianeandjack
    Jun 30, 2012 @ 16:06:52

    Very cool post! And a great explanation for the line in the John Cougar Melancamp song…’Here’s a little ditty about Jack and Diane….’ And guess what, I am Diane and my husband’s name is Jack!!!


  2. shoreacres
    Jul 01, 2012 @ 19:15:30

    And while the bos’n is piping up a little ditty, all the sailors will be looking for their ditty bags – originally called ditto bags because they contained at least two of everything: two needles, two spools of thread, two buttons and so on. Eventually, the word changed, and now we carry ditty bags. They can be filled with nautical “small stuff” – that is, bits and pieces of useful small line – or other sorts of small stuff, such as camping supplies, cosmetics and so on.


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If you encounter an unfamiliar technical term in any of these postings, check the Glossary in the bar across the top of the page.
©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
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