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The meaning and origin of the expression: Tic-tac-toe


What's the meaning of the phrase 'Tic-tac-toe'?

'Tic-tac-toe' is the US name for a game in which two players try to complete a row of either three noughts or three crosses, on a grid of nine squares.

What's the origin of the phrase 'Tic-tac-toe'?

The name 'tic-tac-toe' is a linguistic rarity - one of only a small number of triple ablaut reduplications.

An ablaut reduplication is an expression of two words, the second word being a repetition of the first with a vowel changed. There are many of these, for example, chit-chat or zig-zag. There are just a handful of three-part examples, like tic-tac-toe and bish-bash-bosh.

The game is one of numerous three-in-a-row games. These have existed in many cultures dating back to ancient Egypt and the Romans. Tic-tac-toe and other three-in-a-row games were played mostly by children, who drew the board on a slate.

Tracing the origin of the naming of tic-tac-toe is difficult as, like nursery rhymes, the rules and names of children's games were communicated orally amongst the children and were rarely written down.

The spelling varies, from tic-tac-toe to tick-tack-toe to tit-tat-to.

Another complication is that tic-tac-toe is also known as noughts and crosses. In the US it is tic-tac-toe. In the majority of the English-speaking world it is noughts and crosses. [In case you haven't come across it, nought is a name for zero.]

Both names were used there until at least the early 20th century, when noughts and crosses predominated.

The earliest example of a form of tic-tac-toe that I know of in print is in the US publication The Academician, May 1818:

Checkers, fox and geese, tit-tat-to, hop skip and jump, and a thousand other childish amusements.

The meaning and origin of the phrase 'Tic-tac-toe'.The earliest reference that I can find to noughts and crosses is in the London publication The English Journal of Education, 1843:

There is a game at which children often play, which furnishes a very good illustration [of the board] on a slate. The game is sometimes called "noughts and crosses".

In addition to the fact that the game was known by more than one name, there was more than one game known as tic-tac-toe.

Another entirely different game, also called tic-tac-toe, was played by children in England at the same time. This pastime involved pointing to numbered shapes with one's eyes closed and scoring whatever number was pointed to correctly.

The meaning and origin of the phrase 'Tic-tac-toe'.This citation from an edition of the British journal The Magazine of Art, and the accompanying picture, date from 1884:

He saw those children playing tic-tac-toe.

So, we have these early citations and dates, although they may have been in use orally earlier and other citations may emerge:

- Noughts and crosses - 1843 UK
- Tic-tac-toe (the criss-cross board game) - 1818 USA
- Tic-tac-toe (the pointing game) - 1884 UK

It is possible that the tit-tat-to in the 1818 citation above refers to the pointing game. If so, we would need to look again at the date of the naming of tic-tac-toe. The earliest example of tic-tac-toe in print which unambiguously refers to the 'noughts and crosses' game is from the UK in 1857.

While it seems likely that the game was named as tic-tac-toe in the USA, it may be that it was named in the UK and travelled to the USA by boat.

Why the linguistic rarity the triple ablaut reduplication was chosen as a name is a mystery.

Gary Martin - the author of the website.

By Gary Martin

Gary Martin is a writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.

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