Word Matters Podcast

A Pair of Suffixes and The History of 'Ditto'

Word Matters, Episode 79

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The ending of a word can tell you a lot. Just the slight difference between '-ity' and '-ness' can create a wide variety of distinctions and nuance. Today we're starting at the end.

Plus, everything you'll ever need to know about the history of 'ditto.'

Download the episode here.


Emily Brewster: I want to know what you think of when I say the word ditto.

Peter Sokolowski: I love the words that have shared meanings but come from different roots.

Emily Brewster: Coming up on Word Matters, a useful word that's mostly fallen by the wayside and a pair of suffixes that are the same but different. I'm Emily Brewster and Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media. On each episode, Merriam-Webster editors Ammon Shea, Peter Sokolowski and I explore some aspect of the English language, from the dictionary's vantage point.

In this episode, an obsolete technology will take us back to the word that lent it its name. Come along with me as we look at where the word ditto has been.

Ditto copy machines. All right, Peter and Ammon, I want to know what you think of when I say the word ditto.

Peter Sokolowski: It's the language of my elementary school, I think. I can hear my classmates saying it but meaning same. Meaning, I agree or I would do the same.

Emily Brewster: Oh, okay. Like "I like ice cream." "Ditto."

Peter Sokolowski: Yeah, exactly. Exactly

Emily Brewster: Interesting. Okay. Ammon, how about you?

Ammon Shea: Is this on a test? I'm going to go with what Peter said, in effect an example of itself, ditto.

Emily Brewster: Yeah. Okay. I also associate the word with elementary school but I thought that you would both maybe share the same memory that I do of a really chemically smelling paper that was a copy of something. Did you not have dittos in yours?

Peter Sokolowski: Oh, absolutely.

Ammon Shea: Sure. Yeah.

Emily Brewster: You remember dittos?

Peter Sokolowski: Oh, sure. And the smell and the blue ink maybe.

Ammon Shea: We called it the mimeograph machine.

Emily Brewster: I think mimeograph machines and ditto machines are slightly different technology but they were both technologies that were used prior to now ubiquitous photocopier method. Although photocopiers actually do predate these other machines. Ditto was a trademark of the Starkey Chemical Process Company of La Grange, Illinois, it turns out. But it was a copyright for a kind of machine that was technically referred to as a spirit duplicator. I just want to sit with that term for a minute, spirit duplicator.

Ammon Shea: Spirit duplicator?

Peter Sokolowski: Stealing the soul of a text.

Emily Brewster: And copying it over and over and over again. It was called a spirit duplicator because of that chemical fluid that was used.

Peter Sokolowski: Which was alcoholic in some way?

Emily Brewster: Yes. No, not the spiritual kind of spirits, the chemical alcoholic kinds of spirits. Spirit duplicating is defined in our unabridged dictionary as, a duplicating printing process utilizing master sheets that release color through type indentations when a colorless chemical fluid is applied. What you would do is you would take a piece of paper that was attached to a carbon copy underneath it. You would type on that master document and the purple from the carbon paper would show up on the back of your master documents. You could either write it or type it and then you would feed it into a machine and that layer of carbon would come off using the spirits, this chemical fluid until it ran out. But they could make 200 copies using this process. When I think of the word ditto and my childhood, I think of that smell and of those purple papers.

Peter Sokolowski: These are class worksheets in school?

Emily Brewster: Yeah. These being my associations, a few years ago, I was wandering around in a 19th century literature database as one does and I came across some examples that really surprised me. Here's one from Moby Dick. "That now is what Bowditch in his Epitome calls the Zodiac and what my almanac below calls ditto."

Peter Sokolowski: In other words, calls the same.

Emily Brewster: Yeah. Calls the same. Now here is an example. This is from Charlotte Bronte's Shirley, "What has sweeting? Why David has his harp or flute, which comes to the same thing. He has a sort of pinch back watch, ditto ring, ditto eyeglass, that's what he has." And then I went looking for examples of ditto. And there are many examples in 19th century literature, including in Little Women, including in Sketches by Boz, by Charles Dickens. That one's a nice one. He says, "Mr. Thomas Potter then was a clerk in the city and Mr. Robert Smithers was a ditto in the same. They lived in the same street, walked into town every morning at the same hour, dined at the same slap-bang every day and reveled in each other's company every night." Do you know what a slap-bang is? A slap-bang is a dining establishment where you have to pay up front. You got to slap your money down before they'll let you eat. You cannot eat on credit. You cannot pay your bill as you go out the door, you got to pay for it right front.

Peter Sokolowski: And that was in Dickens?

Emily Brewster: Yeah.

Peter Sokolowski: Fascinating.

Emily Brewster: Sketches by Boz. It turns out that this word ditto used to be far more frequently used in English than it is now. I did some digging and most of the time now when we use ditto, it's with the use that you two cited first. We use it as an adverb. We use it to say that whatever you've just said about one person or thing is also true of another person or thing. For example, Boston is getting a lot of rain. Ditto, New York. New York is also getting a lot of rain. Or it's used in speech to show you agree with what someone has said or to express the same opinion. I don't like spinach. Ditto. I don't like spinach either. These are the most common ways that ditto is functioning today but back in the day, it had these other uses. It turns out that ditto was borrowed in the early 17th century from Italian ditto or detto. In Italian it was used to refer to a thing that was mentioned previously. It's ultimately from Latin dicere, meaning "to say."

Peter Sokolowski: Which is the root of words, like dictionary, right?

Emily Brewster: That's right. And dictate and diction. And all of those diction words.

Peter Sokolowski: I never thought of that dicto in French would be dit, D-I-T, in other words said, having said or the thing said.

Emily Brewster: That's right.

Peter Sokolowski: And originally I see from the Oxford English Dictionary from Florio, John Florio, the great lexicographer, contemporary of Shakespeare who wrote a bilingual Italian and English dictionary. Apparently he's the one who first made a dictionary entry of it.

Emily Brewster: Of the English word ditto?

Peter Sokolowski: Yeah. Using it in English.

Emily Brewster: Our dictionary says that it was borrowed in the early 17th century. We first adapted that same Italian noun use and it was mostly at first applied in these really dry scientific contexts, basically to avoid having to say the same. It was a space saving measure. Now we also use those quotation marks that are sometimes called ditto marks. There's an example from 1795, The Natural History of British Insects, the subject of the first illustration is identified as, "The natural size of the larva with its manner of feeding." And then the second illustration is identified as, "Magnified appearance of the upper side of ditto."

Peter Sokolowski: Of the same.

Emily Brewster: Yeah. It's actually technically more pronouny. It's actually standing for that other noun.

Peter Sokolowski: And we don't define it as a pronoun though.

Emily Brewster: We do not.

Peter Sokolowski: Nor does the Oxford English Dictionary.

Emily Brewster: Yeah. Could argue that we should.

Peter Sokolowski: That's interesting that you point that out that its use is to stand for something else.

Emily Brewster: It's pretty pronouny as nouns go. Adjectival use followed quickly in English. The Italians just kept to that noun meaning but we started using it adjectivally and then also added as an adverb and as a verb.

Peter Sokolowski: Was that with connection to this printing process?

Emily Brewster: No, here's an example from Ulysses. James Joyce's Ulysses, published 1922, "The temperaments of the door, Stephen interposed with, were very passionate about 10 shillings. Roberto ruba roba sua. Quite so, Mr. Bloom dittoed.

Peter Sokolowski: Oh, there we go.

Ammon Shea: Is this originating with Joyce? Because he was obviously quite playful with semantics.

Emily Brewster: He was. I don't actually know if he was the first to use the verb.

Peter Sokolowski: No, it doesn't. The Oxford English Dictionary shows a couple examples before Joyce but Joyce would be a hugely influential person to have a function shift like this.

Emily Brewster: That's true. But he did do a lot of things in Ulysses that nobody has done since.

Ammon Shea: He has influential except when he's not.

Emily Brewster: That's right. There are also examples of the verb ditto being used in Time Magazine. The example in Time is from 1940, "The bar Association of New York City upheld the principle of the bill but condemned its wording as so rigid, so needlessly interfering as to bring about a widespread crippling of the administrative process. Brookings dittoed the opinion." Seconded the opinion is another way of Of saying thing.

Peter Sokolowski: And we don't hear it that way in that kind of official use. And yet I would understand it. We don't hear it from a Supreme Court decision, for example.

Emily Brewster: That's what's so surprising to me about this word is that it seems like for a time, was widely used and so useful and really pretty elegant and also a little fun, very efficient and yet it's not used anymore.

Peter Sokolowski: No, it's true. I associate it with 40 years ago.

Emily Brewster: And only that adverbial use. Why are we not dittoing people anymore? It's kind of like, instead of saying copypasta, which is a text or an image that has been copied, we could say it's been dittoed. I wonder if the ditto machine kind of ruined the word in a way. I don't have any evidence for that. If the association with this administrative office object somehow sullied the word.

Peter Sokolowski: Sure. It's the same kind of word that overlaps and then has kind of this interference when you associate it with a totally different function. We use this in social media now just the word same itself as a response. And that's adverbial too.

Emily Brewster: That's right. We do say same a lot or same same sometimes people even do as a way of showing that you really relate to somebody.

Ammon Shea: People say hard same.

Emily Brewster: Yeah. Hard is doing interesting things these days, I think. Hard ditto.

Ammon Shea: Hard ditto.

Emily Brewster: You're listening to Word Matters. I'm Emily Brewster. We'll return shortly with both absurdity and absurdness. Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media.

Ammon Shea: I'm Ammon Shea. Do you have a question about the origin history or meaning of a word? Email us at wordmatters@m-w.com.

Peter Sokolowski: I'm Peter Sokolowski. Join me every day for the Word of the Day, a brief look at the history and definition of one word. Available at merriam-webster.com or wherever you get your podcasts. And for more podcasts from New England Public Media, visit the NEPM podcast hub at nepm.org.

Emily Brewster: English is a wonderful language if making minute distinctions is your thing. Sometimes slight distinctions of mere connotation can be made with nothing more than the flick of a suffix. Peter's going to show us how it's done.

Peter Sokolowski: As you guys know, I love the words that have shared meanings but come from different roots. Notably words in English come from old English roots and their peers, they're sort of synonyms that have Latin based roots. And I love the fact that we have the word tongue in English but the word language, which comes from Latin. Other pairs like this are fraternity and brotherhood, for example. Or how about legible and readable. Readable is the Old English-based term and legible is the Latin-based term. There's an infinite number of these pairings. I find them constantly fascinating, often because the Latin form tends to be the more academic or legal or technical form of the term but I got to thinking about breaking words into word parts and recognizing that there are parts of words that also share meanings but come from different roots.

For example, prefixes like un as in untie and in. Un would be the Old English and in, I-N, would be the Latin. Or under versus sub. Underwater or subwater. Over and super in a parallel way. Fore, F-O-R-E, meaning before and the Latin prefix pre as in prefix. And the parallel one after, being Old English is after and post would be the Latin one. We have these parallel forms that I think most English speakers never think about that they mean exactly the same thing and they get kind of appended to other words to make new words. And then there are some words that have equivalence that become word parts. We have the word through from old English and the Latin word trans becomes a word like transparent to see through. The word between from Old English and the Latin word part inter like international. And the English word almost and the Latin term quasi or quasi. We can see that we have this flexibility in the language.

And this also goes for the endings of words, suffixes of words. And there are some that come from Latin but some that came from Old English. One of the oldest in the language is ness, N-E-S-S, so greatness, sickness, friendliness, fitness, fairness. There are thousands of these words. And some of these words which are made by adding a suffix are so independent lexically that we don't even think of them as showing a quality. Friendliness is having the quality of being a friend. What about a word like business? We often don't think of that as the quality of being busy.

Emily Brewster: Of being busy. Just to clarify, typically when you put a suffix on a word, you actually create a word that is a different part of speech. The suffix is a way of actually creating a related word that is a member of a different part of speech. You take a word like friendly, which is an adjective you put ness on it and becomes a noun, the quality of being friendly. It becomes the noun friendliness.

Peter Sokolowski: Exactly. We don't think of that with a word like likeness, for example. We think of likeness as meaning an image and we kind of forget the quality of being like what it depicts.

Emily Brewster: That's right. Well, it's come to have a concrete meaning that is other than that.

Peter Sokolowski: Another one is illness, for example. Illness, we just think of as a disease or something, the quality of being ill. And so if you break these down, you can see them. Witness is another one, an archaic meaning of wit.

Emily Brewster: What is that archaic meaning of wit?

Ammon Shea: Well, that's the kind of Shakespearean meaning, it was to know.

Peter Sokolowski: Witness is literally one who knows.

Emily Brewster: That's right. And being witty, is also connected to that idea of having knowledge.

Peter Sokolowski: Knowledge, wisdom and expressing it. And so there is that Latin equivalent, if you want to turn an adjective into a noun in Latin, the ending which came through French is in English, ity, I-T-Y, is how it's usually spelled, can take these Latin comparatives. For example, majority, minority, inferiority, superiority. Those become the nouns of those familiar adjectives. If we go back in the history of the language, it would make sense if the ness suffix is usually associated with words of English origin and the ity suffix is usually used to modify words of Latin origin and that sort of plays out. Although it's possible that we could say a word like superiorness and it would be perfectly understood, or inferiorness. And even the word flexibility, we're talking about these suffixes as having a flexible nature, you could say flexibleness and no one would misunderstand you. Although we could probably find careful editors who might prefer one or other.

What's interesting is to see that the Latin based words as they became and through the centuries, more naturalized, more common, more frequently used, that these etymologically based pairings erode and break down. That we can have a kind of a cross pairing of a Latin based word with an English based stuff are prefix. We have words, and some of these of course end up not being synonyms. You have plasticness and plasticity, which actually mean different things or can mean different things. An easy example is niceness and nicety. They're not completely interchangeable the way that inferiorness and inferiority might be. They end up having a different connotation. And so that these pairings end up giving a kind of flexibility to the language but also show that some of them take on their own meanings.

Emily Brewster: An example I like is biggety, B-I-G-G-E-T-Y or you can spell it with I-T-Y. It's a 19th century coinage and it's kind of dialectal.

Peter Sokolowski: Meaning?

Emily Brewster: Conceded or vain. It's nothing to do with scope or size or greatness.

Peter Sokolowski: And there are these pairings of scarcity and scarceness, absurdity and absurdness that we all recognize. And it wasn't until I started looking into this, I realized those are almost perfectly synonymous. And yet you might use them in slightly different ways, the scarceness of pine cones last year or something, as opposed to the scarcity of a source of food. It would be really hard semantically to split these words up. Now, there is a further division here and this is for word nerds only, etymology junkies only. And that is that the I-T-Y, the ity ending of which expresses a kind of Latin origin has a subset. The subset, which comes really directly from French, is just the T-Y ending. This is what we see with words like safety and bounty and beauty. And so those are nouns that are derived from adjectives in a very similar way but rather than having come from Latin into English, they came through the intermediary of French.

Emily Brewster: Bounty is not the quality of being bount. Exactly.

Peter Sokolowski: And so you see that in many of these cases, the French derived ones, the T-Y ones, are a little bit more familiar and a little bit less legal or technical. You have safety and plenty and beauty and liberty, majesty, puberty, property, treaty, variety. These are pretty common words.

Emily Brewster: Were these words borrowed directly from French, as opposed to being coined in English, using a French suffix?

Peter Sokolowski: Almost all came directly from French. But again, they show, whereas the Latin type of word tends to this more legalese or medicalese, technical usage in modern English, these French derived words are a little bit more comfortable, a little bit more homey, a little bit less legal or technical. It's just an interesting general observation.

Emily Brewster: They're also a little bit more boring, I think.

Peter Sokolowski: Of course.

Emily Brewster: I have to admit, I am actually a big fan of the I-T-Y suffix because I think it's often really funny. I think of the word.

Ammon Shea: You've never told us.

Emily Brewster: I keep these things to myself most of the time. I like the word avuncular. Avuncular means of or relating to an uncle. I have some wonderful uncles. Avuncular is just a word that I like and there is the word avuncularity or avuncularity, which I just think is a funny word, is the quality of being avuncular. That ity suffix kind of makes me giggle sometimes. Copiosity.

Peter Sokolowski: There you go.

Emily Brewster: Or copiousness. It's way more interesting than copiousness.

Ammon Shea: This is totally off topic, but since we're being word nerds, materteral is the correlate word for of or relating to aunt. We hear of avuncular all the time but nobody ever says materteral.

Emily Brewster: Materteral, how do you spell that?

Ammon Shea: M-A-T-E-R-T-E-R-A-L.

Emily Brewster: I have some wonderful aunts also so I'm going to try to incorporate that into that.

Peter Sokolowski: Is there a noun?

Emily Brewster: Materterality?

Peter Sokolowski: Yeah, there we go.

Emily Brewster: Materterality. I don't know, I'm going to express some dubiosity about the actual established quality of that word.

Peter Sokolowski: But isn't it interesting that in English we have a choice of suffixes, one which can be deliberately excessively technical almost to the point of...

Emily Brewster: Goofiness.

Peter Sokolowski: Not goofiosity.

Emily Brewster: Not goofiosity. Okay, here's one you both know the word, bibulous, given to drinking, fond of alcoholic drinks. Bibulosity, a really good word. It's much better than bibulousness, bibulosity. I think go forth and use ity suffixes with great generosity.

Peter Sokolowski: There we go.

Emily Brewster: Ityousness. Can it be ityousness? Ityosity. Let us know what you think about Word Matters. Review us wherever you get your podcasts or email us at wordmatters@m-w.com. You can also visit us at nepm.org and for the Word of the Day and all your general dictionary needs, visit merriam-webster.com. Our theme music is by Tobias Boit, artwork by Annie Jacobson. Word Matters is produced by John Voci and Adam Maid. For Peter Sokolowski and Ammon Shea, I'm Emily Brewster. Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media.

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