To a T
I used this the other day when I was writing about keeping my hat on and it occurred to me that I hadn’t a clue what the T in the expression was or meant. The phrase, of course, means that there is a perfect fit and usually follows a noun or pronoun such as that’s me to a T.
Before we plunge into finding out what a T is, it is worth noting that this has been around since at least the 17th century. Possibly the first usage in print is to be found, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) in The Humours and Conversations of the Town by James Wright, published in 1693, where we find on page 102, “All the under-villages and towns-men come to him for redress; which he does to a T”. Variants, where T is spelt phonetically as tee, appeared in Edward Ward’s Labour In Vain, published in 1700, “Harry cajoled my inquirer, and fitted his humour to a t__” and Joseph Giles’ Miscellaneous Poems of 1771, “I’ll tell you where you may be suited to a tee”.
There are two possible explanations as to what a T may be. The first is a tee which is a right-angled instrument used primarily by stone masons and carpenters to draw and measure square corners. Obviously, a skilled practitioner of the art of teeing would ensure a perfect fit, with no gap or room to move. This would be a common or garden tool, found in many a workshop and building site, and its usage fits perfectly (pun intended) the meaning of our phrase. My hesitation in accepting as the root is because the first usage adopts T rather than tee. Of course, this may be a vagary of the spelling conventions which were somewhat looser then than they are now but perhaps it is not. But it also doesn’t really add to the sense. A tee is the means of ensuring a perfect fit, not a description of the fit itself.
The other contender is that the T is an abbreviation for the word, tittle. As a noun, it was used as early as the late 14th century to denote a small stroke or point in writing. Examples of a tittle might be the dot over the letter I or the cross in the letter t or an accent mark. From this a secondary meaning developed, that of a jot or a small particle, the weeniest mark or space possible. In English, tittle in a figurative sense is often accompanied by jot and did so in the King James Bible of 1611. In Matthew 5:18 we find, “Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled”. An unaccompanied tittle appeared in the same version’s translation of Luke 16:17, “and it is easier for heaven and earth to pass, than one tittle of the law to fail”.
A jot owes its origin to the Greek letter, iota, which was the smallest letter and so in concert with tittle, it emphasises the smallness of the aperture. We have already seen that tittle is found on its own and in the context of our expression, adds some sense – something that is missing from the alternative, tee. So it may be that the T in our expression is a tittle of the word, tittle, a satisfying result if that is indeed the case.