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Watching an old film dating back in the 1930s, I came across the word tonite, the wrong and more phonetic-like variant of "tonight" (it was written on the advertising poster of a night-club).

When was this variant first used?

Is this word commonly used in American or British English?

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    Interesting that the OED in its entry for tonite (edited in 1986) has no citations earlier than 1968. If you saw it in a film made in the 1930s they may well be interested in the details (although printed media are preferred).
    – Andrew Leach
    Jul 21, 2013 at 9:51
  • @AndrewLeach The film is "Blonde Venus", with Marlene Dietrich and Cary Grant, dated 1932: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blonde_Venus Jul 21, 2013 at 10:10
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    It's certainly used informally in BrE.
    – TrevorD
    Jul 21, 2013 at 15:03
  • And I'm certain I saw it on cinema billboards in cartoons in Punch in the 50's or early 60's.
    – Colin Fine
    Jul 21, 2013 at 20:43
  • The nineteenth century was a golden age of imitations of dialect speech and of spelling choices attributed to barely literate writers. A newspaper database search turns up 261 instances of the spelling to-nite between 1854 and 1919, the earliest being this one from Bell's Life in Sydney and Sporting Review (April 1, 1854), reprinted from the "New York Picayune": "Ef you don't chip up finely to-nite, de tings will hab to go up de spout in de mornin. Brudder Freelinhyson Goff Jonson, pleese pass 'round de sasser."
    – Sven Yargs
    Oct 9, 2018 at 23:43

2 Answers 2

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The OED, which hasn't been updated for this page, only dates it back to 1968. But I can do better. Significantly, the earliest ad I found that uses the spelling "tonite" is from 1921. By the 30s there were dozens and dozens of newspaper ads that use this spelling.

I even found some earlier newspaper examples where they just overuse phonetic spelling.

New York Picayune, 1854 (reprint)

Ef you don't chip up finely to-nite, do tings will hab to go up de spout in de mornin.

Evansville Journal, 1866

"What are we met for tonite, my friends?" Said he, "what calls us together? Wherefore these sounds uv joy wherefore this fire, and wherefore is Bascom sellin likker at half price?"

Kapunda Herald and Northern Intelligencer, 1867

Ate tonite; yule giv grate obligashun

These next two examples are from letters and diaries, which typically aren't as strict with spelling.

March 1904:

Missouri Love Letter

The "devil" of a north Missouri paper received a love letter the other day, and the foreman got hold of it and read it. This is what it said: "Dearest of All—At last I know you are thee onley person on earth for me. Darling iff you don't come to me soon I'll die. I adoor you. When you come out tonite bring that box of chocolates or I'll black bothe yure eyes. Now mine. Yure loveing Lizzie."
Cleveland Gazette (Cleveland, Ohio)

October 1917:

Feel better tonite.
[...]
He dont like the army tonite.
[...]
Squint went to bed early tonite.
[...]
Went to the band concert tonite.
The Seventh Regiment Gazette

August 1921:

Ad ending in "Open 'Til Ten Tonite"
The Hutchinson Blade (Hutchinson, Kansas)

November 1928 (and reprinted like six times):

Hotdog ad saying "Try Them Tonite"
Plaindealer (Topeka, Kansas)

May 1930:

They are looking for the largest crowd to-nite.
Negro Star (Wichita, Kansas)

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Have you looked at the Google NGram graph for this?

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    The problem with this is that "tonite" is also a type of explosive, with this sense dating back to 1881.
    – Laurel
    Oct 9, 2018 at 21:41
  • Yep, it wasn't until about 1950 that the use of the word to refer to the explosive fell out of practice.
    – Hot Licks
    Oct 10, 2018 at 1:16

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