I heard myself saying something was "tickety-boo", meaning good, successful, or satisfactory. Does anyone know where this strange-sounding phrase originated?
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ठीकहैंबाबू (tikai bābū) means "Yes, sir" in Hindi.
The proper Hindi phrase is ठीक हैं बाबू /theak hai, babu/ (Okay, Sir) —ed.
The Concise New Partridge Dictionary of Slang By Eric Partridge, Tom Dalzell, Terry Victor, Tom Dalzell; Routledge. (c); see: GoogleBooks
Or from Arabic - tiktiboo (transliterated) means 'you (m.pl.) write'. From the days of the Anglo-Egyptian army and the need for each soldier to write his name/moniker against his monthly salary cash payment. Once they had tiktiboo, all was tickety-boo!?
Slang dictionary discussions of the term
Jonathon Green, The Dictionary of Contemporary Slang (1984) seems far less sure about the etymology of tickety-boo than the authors of The Concise New Partridge Dictionary of Slang seem to be. Here is Green's entry for the term:
As for Eric Partridge, he and his successors ran through a number of possibilities over the years. From Eric Partridge, A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, fifth edition (1961):
From Eric Partridge, A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, eighth edition (1984):
Here is the cited entry for teek-hi in the same dictionary:
The most recent theory, from the 2008 edition of The Concise New Partridge Dictionary of Slang, as cited in Malvolio's answer, and repeated in The New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English (2015) may be seen either as the decisive identification of the origin of an etymologically difficult term or as the latest brave (but provisional) pronouncement in a long line of speculative efforts by Partridge and his successors.
Nevertheless, John Ayto & John Simpson, Oxford Dictionary of Modern Slang (2010) remains noncommittal:
Early instances of the term in Google Books search results
The earliest instance of any form of the term in Google Books search results is as a joke name in an anecdote that seems to have nothing to do with the armed services or India. From " ... De Luxe," in The Motor (1938 (combined snippets):
No further description of the lord is given, other than that he and Charles were "two large English gentlemen travelling in the Grand Manner."
The next match is from "The Battle of Britain Opens with the Greatest Air Attack in History," in Life magazine (August 26, 1940):
Evidently a number of orchestras recorded versions of "Tiggerty-Boo" in 1940. The Gramaphone, volume 18 (1940) offers these comments:
An issue of The Motor refers to a "tuneless dirge" by the name of "Ticketyboo" (presumably the same song that everyone else was describing as plucky and upbeat); and elsewhere in that same issue the word appears, for the first time in Google Books search results, as a descriptive term. From The Motor, volume 78 (1941) [combined snippets]:
Other early Google Books matches for the tickety-boo used as a word (rather than as a name) also come from the early 1940s. From "What Are Your New Year Resolutions for 1942?" in New Zealand Journal of Agriculture, volume 62 (1941):
From Nora Cassera, [article title not visible], in The Gregg Shorthand Magazine, volume 9 (1942) [combined snippets]:
From Sir John Hammerton, The War Illustrated, volume 7 (1943) [snippet not viewable in window], an instance that cites Hindustani origin:
This instance is perhaps most interesting for the fact that Hammerton considers the term to be of Hindustani origin—a view that M.G. Arnold in a postwar issue of American Notes and Queries [combined snippets] endorses:
And from George Weller, Singapore Is Silent (1943):
Eric Partridge seems to have been very confident that both the RAF (since circa 1922) and the British Navy (since circa 1925) were using forms of tickety-boo by the mid-1920s—and since he was quoting from books of service slang completed in 1944 and 1945, his sources were probably in a position to know about it first-hand.
Nevertheless, after slowly percolating through British culture for almost two decades, the term seems to have hit the big time because of a silly song of that name [originally spelled "Tiggerty-Boo") that became popular as a national morale booster in the summer of 1940, a particularly grim period for the UK during World War II.
Authorities have differed (and changed their minds) about the probable etymology of the term, and opinion today is still far from unanimous. Many commentators, however, going back to as early as 1943, have identified the term as originating in a Hindi expression meaning "It's all right, sir," as Malvolio noted in an answer five years ago.