One of the joys of looking at the origins of words and phrases we use today is to see how they have changed in meaning over the centuries. A perfect example of this phenomenon is the glorious reduplicated phrase, hoity-toity, which we use rather pejoratively to describe someone putting on airs and graces, who is pretentiously self-important, haughty or pompous. I had always assumed that it was a bit of nonsense, the toity serving to enforce the sense through rhyme of the opening part of the phrase, hoity.
I was right to think that the point of interest in the phrase was hoity but wrong in thinking that it was just a nonsense word. There was a verb hoit, now long fallen out of fashion, I’m afraid, which meant to “indulge in riotous and noisy mirth.” It is thought that the verb was linked in some way to the noun hoyden which was used to denote a noisy or energetic girl or an ignorant or clownish chap, both owing their genesis to the Middle Dutch word, heiden, meaning a yokel and from which we also derived our word heathen.
This sense of frivolity and Bacchanalian revelry is amply illustrated in its first appearance in print in Sir Robert L’Estrange’s translation of The visions of Don Francisco de Quevedo Villegas, published in 1668 and a blockbuster if there ever was one. In it he wrote “the Widows I observ’d..Chanting and Jigging to every Tune they heard, and all upon the Hoyty-Toyty, like mad Wenches of Fifteen.” It is interesting to note that hoity was already hitched up with toity. L’Estrange used the phrase to describe women of a certain age acting as youngsters but it also could be used to describe a certain type of young girl, as this rather unflattering and sexist example from The History of Emily Montague, written by Frances Brooke and published in 1769, shows; “By the way, Jack, there is generally a certain hoity-toity inelegance of form and manner at seventeen, which in my opinion is not balanc’d by freshness of complexion, the only advantage girls have to boast of.”
The handy New Dictionary of the terms ancient and modern of the canting crew, compiled by the modestly anonymous B.E, who described himself as a Gent, around the beginning of the 18th century, reveals that there were at least variants. He defines Hightetity as a Ramp or Rude Girl, prompting suggestions that hoity may have been pronounced at the time in the same way as we do height today. In 1785 Francis Grose, in his A classical dictionary of the vulgar tongue, squared the circle by pulling all the strands together with his definition; “Heighty toity, a hoyden or romping girl.”
But almost contemporaneous with Grose’s definition was an altogether different usage as illustrated by this quotation form John O’Keefe’s comic opera in three parts, Fontainebleau, from 1784; “My mother..was a fine lady, all upon the hoity-toities, and so, good for nothing.” Here we are not dealing with a rumbustious wench but rather with a woman who is rather haughty. Quite how this abrupt about-turn in meaning came about is not quite clear. It may have been that the original meaning of hoity-toity was the preserve of the lower orders and that the pronunciation of hoity as heighty led to a misunderstanding which caused it to be associated with haughtiness. We will never know but it is the latter meaning of the phrase that won out and is used to this day.