Ditto ditto my song

A serenade on my Apple Music in the dark night of 10/13, Danny Kaye singing Gilbert & Sullivan patter songs, with warmth rather than the sharp edges of the D’Oyly Carte patter specialists; at my 2 am whizz break, he had arrived at the Lord Chancellor’s “Nightmare Song”, from G&S’s Iolanthe, with its concluding:

the night has been long —
ditto ditto my song —
and thank goodness
they’re both of them over!

Being (more or less relentlessly) a linguist, I asked myself, not for the first time: What kind of word is ditto? It looks a lot like some kind of adverb here, with the crucial line paraphrasable as (awkward) thus thus my song, or (better) also also my song, or (even better) so too my song. (Although you might argue that ditto‘s a special kind of noun, since it’s paraphrasable as the same.) And, while we’re on the subject: Where on earth does it come from? I entertained speculations about some connection to double, maybe Greek di– ‘two’, or possibly to dot, given ditto marks.

My etymological speculations are provably off-base; the closest English words are diction and dictate, from the Latin stem dict– ‘say’. Meanwhile, my off-the-cuff part-of-speech assignment is flatly contradicted by the authority I look at first, NOAD (a lexicographically respectable dictionary of manageable size, and — unlike AHD or the M-W dictionaries — one accessible directly from my browser). NOAD is based on the resources of the OED, and the OED (which I can access on-line) on ditto classifies the word as a noun — but in an entry from well over a century ago, so we need to look critically at its evidence for this classification. Which shows that in the 18th century the word was incontestably a noun (with a plural dittoes). That usage, however, is long dead. The question is what to say about modern usage, and there my adverb idea has a lot going for it (and is also the classification given in Merriam-Webster’s word history for modern ditto).

So we’re in for a bumpy ride, much like the Lord Chancellor’s, with possibly more questions than answers. Hang on.

The NOAD entry. As it stands:

noun ditto: [a] the same thing again (used in lists and accounts and often indicated by a ditto mark under the word or figure to be repeated). [b[ informal used to indicate that something already said is applicable a second time: if one folds his arms, so does the other; if one crosses his legs, ditto. ORIGIN early 17th century (in the sense ‘in the aforesaid month’): from Tuscan dialect, variant of Italian detto ‘said’, from Latin dictus ‘said’.

On the etymology, the details of the development from the Latin dict– stem through some dialectal variant of Italian detto ‘said’, eventually borrowed into English as ditto ‘a duplicate, a similar thing’ seem not to be entirely clear, but there’s general agreement about the overall development. So, that much is settled.

Now, the earlier uses of ditto are clearly as a noun, especially in the sense ‘A duplicate or copy; an exact resemblance; a similar thing (OED2, from long ago), as in this cite from a [US President] John Adams letter of 1776:

Canteens, camp kettles, blankets, tents, shoes, hose, arms, flints, and other dittoes

Such a use is entirely impossible now, but OED2 has (as yet — no doubt a revision is in preparation) no further information. For this I turn to the Merriam-Webster word history for ditto, which notes that original noun (and verbed) ditto was superseded by largely adverbial usage (this being what we have today), beginning already in the 18th century

Adverbial ditto can be verbed, to convey ‘say ditto; repeat some speech; agree with a statement’, as in this invented example:

I said I thought the moon was made of green cheese, and Sandy dittoed my preposterous idea

— which can be used to report that Sandy said ditto; or something like It is indeed made of green cheese; or something like Yes, everybody knows that.

Spirit-duplicator ditto. From Wikipedia:

A spirit duplicator (also referred to as a Rexograph or Ditto machine in North America, Banda machine or Fordigraph machine in the U.K. and Australia) is a printing method invented in 1923 by Wilhelm Ritzerfeld that was commonly used for much of the rest of the 20th century. (The spirit duplicator should not be confused with the stencil duplicator, produced by such companies as Gestetner and Roneo, which used an entirely different process.) The term “spirit duplicator” refers to the alcohols that were a major component of the solvents used as “inks” in these machines. The device coexisted alongside the mimeograph.

Spirit duplicators were used mainly by schools, churches, clubs, and other small organizations, such as in the production of fanzines, because of the limited number of copies one could make from an original, along with the low cost (and corresponding low quality) of copying.

History: … The best-known manufacturer in the United States and the world was Ditto Corporation of Illinois.

… The faintly sweet aroma of pages fresh off the duplicator was a feature of school life in the spirit-duplicator era.

The Ditto Corporation of America took its name from adverbial ditto, roughly ‘in the same way, in a similar way’. And then the company name gave rise to a (lower-cased) noun ditto ‘a copy made by spirit duplication’ and a verbed noun ditto ‘to make such copies’.

Ditto ditto my song. D’ya remember Danny Kaye, the Lord Chancellor, and the Nightmare Song? Let’s go back there, because Wikipedia has a wide-ranging, informative, and entertaining entry on the patter song, which begins with the background information:

The patter song is characterised by a moderately fast to very fast tempo with a rapid succession of rhythmic patterns in which each syllable of text corresponds to one note. It is a staple of comic opera, especially Gilbert and Sullivan, but it has also been used in musical theatre and elsewhere. The lyric of a patter song generally features tongue-twisting rhyming text, with alliterative words and other consonant or vowel sounds that are intended to be entertaining to listen to at rapid speed. The musical accompaniment is lightly orchestrated and fairly simple, to emphasise the text. The song is often intended as a showpiece for a comic character, usually a bass or baritone. The singer should be capable of excellent enunciation, to sing the song to maximum effect.

I was aware of G&S and patter songs, but then for three years at Princeton I roomed with Frank Carr, who was an actor with a special fancy for patter-singing comic roles in G&S, which he performed with the Princeton Savoyards company. I was fit only for an assistant stage manager role, but I loved being in on the performances. So Frank gave me G&S for life. (He also got me to take the intro linguistics course with him, in which I discovered what I wanted to do with the rest of my life, passionately, and here I am over 60 years later.)




4 Responses to “Ditto ditto my song”

  1. Robert Coren Says:

    I found this felicitous, because I am just now working on the Lord Chancellor’s nightmare song, with a possibility of informal performance sometime in the next month or two. (Assuming I can get through the whole thing without tripping over my own tongue, so to speak.)

  2. Lise Menn Says:

    Ah, the swift and subtle evocation of Anna Russell…
    By the way, Rossini might be mentioned as the great creator of patter songs before G&S. Figaro su!

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