On the QT
What's the meaning of the phrase 'On the QT'?
On the quiet.
What's the origin of the phrase 'On the QT'?
The slang term 'qt' is a shortened form of 'quiet'. There's no definitive source for the phrase 'on the q.t.', although it appears to be of 19th century British origin - not, as is often supposed, American. The longer phrase 'on the quiet' is also not especially old, but is first recorded somewhat before 'on the qt', in Otago: Goldfields & Resources, 1862:
"Unless men can work [the gold] on 'the quiet', they are not likely to make 'piles' so rapidly as Messrs. Hartley and Riley."
That first record is from new Zealand, but is soon followed by citations from the United Kingdom and the USA.
As to on the q.t., in The Facts on File Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins, Robert Hendrickson states:
"A British broadside ballad (1870) contained the line 'Whatever I tell you is on the Q.T.'"
It would be good to know the name of the ballad in order to follow up this assertion. Unfortunately, the author doesn't give it, from which we can only suppose he didn't know it himself. Without some supporting evidence that claim has to be in doubt. Hendrickson also goes on to say:
"On the Q.T.' gained more popularity when it appeared in an 1891 minstrel show number called 'Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay.' London 'went stark mad over the refrain,' which was written by Henry J. Sayers and sung by Lottie Collins. The first stanza follows:
A sweet Tuxedo girl you see,
Queen of swell society,
Fond of fun as fun can be
When it's on the strict Q.T.
I'm not too young, I'm not too old,
Not too timid, not too bold,
Just the kind of sport I'm told
This assertion appears to be incorrect. The first stanza of that song is this:
A smart and stylish girl you see,
Belle of good society;
Not too strict, but rather free,
Yet as right as right can be!
never forward, never bold,
Not too hot and not too cold,
But the very thing I'm told,
That in your arms you'd like to hold!
The 'on the strict Q.T' line doesn't appear in the original 1891 version of the song. I'm not sure where Henrickson's version was obtained from and when it was written. The Lizzie Borden Society's web site (http://lizzieandrewborden.com) has this to say about it:
"Over the years, the easily sung and remembered tune has been claimed by many other composers and lyricists who have added their own version of the words."
All early citations of the phrase have it as 'on the strict q.t.'. The first recorded use of any version of the phrase in print that I can find documentary evidence for is by the Irish novelist George Moore, in A mummer's wife 1884:
" It will be possible to have one spree on the strict q.t."
The first use of 'on the q.t.' that isn't strict, so to speak, is from the Indiana newspaper The Sunday Gazette, January 1898, in an advert for a stage show by Fanny Rice.
The phrase has retained its place in the language and is still used, although these days it has the whiff of US pulp fiction gangster novels and films.
H. L. Mencken, in The American Language, 1921, comments on the American fondness for abbreviations. like OK, PDQ, COD, as well QT. He suggests they helped non-English speaking immigrants to communicate.
In the 1997 film L.A. Confidential (screenplay Brian Helgeland, based on a novel by James Ellroy), Sid Hudgens (played by Danny DeVito) signs off his newspaper columns with "off the record, on the QT and very hush-hush.". This was taken up as the film's tagline in advertising posters.