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What does "to-may-to, to-mah-to" mean?

I've seen this expression a few times and it seems to indicate some sort of equality. But what does it really mean?

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@WillHunting it's what Brett answered :) –  aF. Jan 17 '12 at 17:12
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it's instructive to hear the song Ella F. and Louis Armstrong - Let's Call the Whole Thing Off –  Theta30 Jan 17 '12 at 17:14
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Theta30's comment should be expanded into an answer. That is, in fact, the origin of the expression. –  MετάEd Jan 17 '12 at 17:15
    
Go for it @Theta30 –  aF. Jan 17 '12 at 17:16
    

4 Answers 4

It refers to the George Gershwin song, "Let's Call The Whole Thing Off", which is a duet between two characters from different social classes, and therefore different accents.

You say eether and I say eyether,

You say neether and I say nyther,

Eether, eyether, neether, nyther,

Let's call the whole thing off!

You like potato and I like potahto,

You like tomato and I like tomahto,

Potato, potahto, tomato, tomahto!

Let's call the whole thing off!

Nowadays, it's often used when someone feels that the same thing is being referred to using different words.

"I think David Beckham is past his best"

"Well, he's not as young as he was"

"Oh, tomayto, tomahto"

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It's interesting that in the "original" (the song lyrics), that difference in pronunciation (among many others) is actually portrayed as being so significant that it's enough reason to end the romance! But in the modern usage, it's just a way of saying that your apparent difference in opinion is either trivial or doesn't really exist at all (being just a matter of the same thing being said different ways). –  FumbleFingers Jan 17 '12 at 22:40
    
@FumbleFingers It's not that the pronunciation is a reason to end a romance, it's simply emblematic of all the various differences between the two characters. If anything, given the whole song, it's not a good enough reason at all. It's more like the same level of severity as if they got into an argument over how to hang the guest towels in the bathroom. –  Phoenix Jan 17 '12 at 23:55
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@Phoenix: Sure, it's "emblematic" - but that's an implied interpretation. Sticking to the actual words of the song, it gives nine examples of pronunciation differences (plus one word-order). No other reasons for ending the relationship are explicitly stated. Anyway, my point was simply that pronunciation differences in that song are a metaphor for relational disharmony, whereas in the modern usage they're a metaphoric way of brushing aside trivial differences. –  FumbleFingers Jan 18 '12 at 0:34

It refers to different ways of saying tomato. It means it doesn't matter whether you say it with a different accent, it's still the same thing. So the expression means: it doesn't matter.

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It's a way of dismissing a noted or claimed or supposed difference between two things as trivial.

Attitudinally, it combines an acknowledgement of some difference while simultaneously waving that difference away as not worth bothering with.

And because the pronunciation "to-mah-to" is, at least to ears attuned to US pronunciation, connotatively "upper class," the dismissal gains a subtle heft since to insist on the validity of the "obviously" a trivial difference makes one fussy and highfalutin, a stickler and a snob over petty differences. And that's always a no-no.

There's a class game neatly embedded into the expression, which is there even without benefit of the lyrics from which the phrase was spun-out -- testimony to the verbal genius of George Gershwin (though I might have guessed it was Cole Porter, who was also capable of such a feat.)

@Theta Thanks for that great link!

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+1 for pointing out the "class game" aspect! I always wondered as a child why two differences in pronunciation was enough reason to break off a romance. –  IQAndreas Apr 11 at 5:24

Some corrections about the song (though that is tomato/tomahto re: this discussion)

  1. Ira Gershwin wrote the lyrics. George the music.
  2. Other lyrics are:

But oh! If we call the whole thing off, Then we must part. And oh! If we ever part, Then that might break my heart!

The last line is:

For we know we need each other so we Better call the calling off off, Let's call the whole thing off.

They want to stay together, so they call off the calling off. Meaning, these reasons are trivial compared to what we mean to each other.

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Is this an answer, or did you want to comment on one of the answers? (if that was the case, I can ask a moderator to make this into a comment, even if you don't have enough reputation for them yet) –  IQAndreas Apr 11 at 5:26
    
Psst...! explain what "to-may-to and to-mah-to" means nowadays and your answer (which I like) won't risk deletion. –  Mari-Lou A Apr 11 at 6:14

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