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The meaning and origin of the expression: To a T

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To a T

What's the meaning of the phrase 'To a T'?

If something is said to fit 'to a t' it fits exactly; properly; precisely.

What's the origin of the phrase 'To a T'?

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People are happy to use this phrase having no idea what a 'T' is.
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The expression 'to a T', is often extended to form other phrases: 'down to a T', 'suits to a T', 'fits to a T', 'generous to a T' etc. It is also found in advertising copy like 'Golf to a tee' and 'Coffee to a tea'. Those latter jokey versions are extensions of the alternative spellings 'tee' or 'tea'. The original form 'to a T' is an old phrase and the earliest citation that I know of is 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', 'tee' or 'tea'. 'Tea' is the easiest to deal with as it appears in no early citations of the expression and is clearly just a misspelling. The proposed derivations that assume the phrase is 'to a tee' 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 origins they would seem to lack credibility.

To a TGiven Wright's earliest 'to a T' usage and the lack of evidence to support the 'tee' or 'tea' versions, it is safe to state that 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. So, what of the alternative theories?

  • 'T-shirt', a name of American origin referring to the shape of the garment in question. At first sight, this may be an appealing explanation. The phrase is often extended as 'fits to a T/tee/tea' and t-shirts, notably on the bulky frame of Bruce Willis, are certainly close fitting. Sadly, 't-shirts' are a 20th century invention so, as far as this explanation is concerned, are more than 200 years too late and can't be taken as a serious contender.
  • 'T-square' has something 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 letter 'T' itself, as the initial 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 well before 'to a T', with the same meaning; for example, in Francis Beaumont's Jacobean comedy drama The Woman Hater, 1607. we find:

Ile quote him to a tittle.

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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