To a T

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To a T : Phrases


Exactly; properly. Often used in the phrase 'suits to a T'.



'To a T', which is sometimes written 'to a tee', is an old phrase and is first recorded in James Wright's satire The Humours and conversations of the town, 1693:

"All the under Villages and Towns-men come to him for Redress; which he does to a T."

It is difficult to determine the origin of this phrase. It would be helpful to know the correct spelling; 'T' or 'tee'. The proposed derivations that assume the latter are:

The phrase derives from the sports of golf or curling, which have a tee as the starting or ending point respectively. The curling usage would seem to match the meaning better as the tee is the precise centre of the circle in which players aim to stop their stones. However, neither sport is referred to in any of the early citations of the phrase and there's really no evidence to support either derivation apart from use of the word 'tee'. The 'to a tee' version isn't recorded at all until 1771 when J. Giles used it in his Poems:

"I'll tell you where You may be suited to a tee."

John Jamieson, in the etymological dictionary Jamieson's Dictionary of the Scottish Language, 1867, records 'to a tee' as 'to a tittle'. If even a 19th century Scots lexicographer doesn't support the Scottish sports origin they would seem to lack credibility.

Given Wright's earliest 'to a T' usage and the lack of evidence to support the 'tee' version, it is safe to assume the proper spelling is 'to a T'. So, what T was meant? Again, there are alternatives; 'T-shirt', or 'T-square', or some abbreviation of a word starting with T.

'T-shirt' is clearly as least 300 years too late, has no connection with the meaning of the phrase and can't be taken as a serious contender.

'T-square' has more going for it, in that a T-square is a precise drawing instrument, but also lacks any other evidence to link it to the phrase.

The first letter of a word. If this is the derivation then the word in question is very likely to be 'tittle'. A tittle is a small stroke or point in writing or printing and is now best remembered via the term jot or tittle. The best reason for believing that this is the source of the 'T' is that the phrase 'to a tittle' existed in English more than a century before 'to a T', with the same meaning. For example, in Edward Hall's Chronicles, circa 1548, we find:

"I then... began to dispute with my selfe, little considerynge that thus my earnest was turned euen to a tittyl not so good as, estamen."

When there isn't a definitive origin and there are several proposed derivations, the wisest course is to list the possibilities and leave it at that. In this case, although there is no smoking gun, the 'to a tittle' derivation would probably stand up in court as 'beyond reasonable doubt'.

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