Thursday, November 06, 2008

A tad irritating

Why oh why oh why do so many people these days use the expression "a tad" to mean "a little"? It is folksy. It is false. It makes me feel slightly queasy. It must stop.

If you doubt that it is so common, just try a Google News search for the phrase.

Where does it come from? The Mavens' Word of the Day enlightens us:

What is most surprising about the common phrase a tad is how new it is. Though it seems the sort of slightly old-fashioned thing an elderly relative might say, it never really had much currency until recently.

An Americanism, the earliest relevant sense of tad was 'a small child, especially a boy'. It was also used jocularly of old men, but this was never the primary meaning. This sense seems to be first recorded in the 1870s, but there are some earlier examples, of unclear meaning, in college slang dating to the 1840s.

The more usual use of tad is the sense 'a small amount or degree; a bit', often used in the adverbial phrase a tad 'a little; slightly'. This is first recorded around 1940, but does not seem to have become common until around 1970. The two largest American dictionaries of the 1960s, The Random House Dictionary, Unabridged Edition and Webster's Third New International Dictionary omitted this sense. In our files we don't start seeing large numbers of citations until the early 1970s.

The origin of tad is uncertain. It is usually thought to be a clipping of tadpole, though it could also be a dialectal variant of toad (from which the first element in tadpole is itself derived), which has also been used as a humorous term of address for a small boy.

Which is all very interesting, but this madness must stop.

3 comments:

crewegwyn said...

I used 'bathetic' in an e-mail to council colleagues - one of them told me my spellchecker was faulty. He thought I meant pathetic!!!

Really. What would Lord B make of it?

Frank H Little said...

I consciously use "a touch" as my elders and betters did.

martynemh said...

I think 'a tad' was formed from the initial letters of 'To A Degree'.