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What does the prefix atta mean? What is it trying to abbreviate? What a? Wiktionary claims that it stands for that's a or that's the, but I do not see the resemblance to atta.

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Wow, I'd never considered where that came from! –  Skilldrick Oct 21 '10 at 12:32
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hm as soon as i read the question i thought "It must be 'That's the'!" That's the boy -> at's the boy - atsdaboy - attaboy –  Claudiu Nov 1 '10 at 17:16
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2 Answers

up vote 10 down vote accepted

First of all, Etymonline agrees:

1909, from common pronunciation of "that's the boy!" a cheer of encouragement or approval.

Merriam-Webster throws in a "probably" for good measure:

probably alteration of that's the boy

First Known Use: 1909

The most extended discussion I was able to find is in the Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English by Eric Partridge:

attaboy! Go it!: US (— 1917); anglicised in 1918. (F. & G.) The OED and Collinson derive it from that's the boy!, but possibly it represents at her, boy!, where her is sexless; probably, however, it is a corruption of the exclamatory US staboy recorded by Thornton. Dr Douglas Leechman, that eminent anthropologist and notable contributor to the Dictionary of Canadian English, wrote to me in 1969: 'Everybody, except the pundits, knows that this is "That's the boy"—"'at's a boy"—"atta boy".'—2. Hence, an approbatory exclam. from ca. 1931, as in D.L. Sayers, Murder Must Advertise, 1933, '"Picture of nice girl bending down to put the cushion in the corner of the [railway] carriage. And the headline [of the advertistement]? 'Don't let them pinch your seat.'" "Attaboy!" said Mr Bredon [Lord Peter Wimsey].'—3. (As Attaboy) an Air Transport Auxiliary 'plane or member: WW2, then nostalgic. (Jackson.) Suggested by the intitials and punning on senses 1 and 2. See Ancient and Tattered Airmen or Aviators.

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For the sake of completeness, that's a quote from a 2002 reprint of the 1984 (8th) edition. The first edition appeared in 1937, Mr. Partridge was born in 1894 and died in 1979. –  RegDwigнt Oct 21 '10 at 18:10
    
Am I the only one here who frequently hears (and pronounces) this as ‘thattaboy’, with a clearer link to the original form? It’s always been instinctively clear to me that this is where the expression comes from, being quite parallel to “that’s a good boy”, only without the adjective. –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Dec 8 '13 at 14:01
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It comes from "That's a good boy," through a series of shortenings.

  1. That's a good boy.
  2. That's a boy. (or, "That's the boy")
  3. 'at's a boy.
  4. atta boy.
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And you evidence for "good" ever having been part of the expression? –  Colin Fine Nov 15 '10 at 13:21
    
I guess that's just how it was explained to me. Let me dig up some evidence. –  John Gietzen Nov 15 '10 at 14:11
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