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I've always felt that tit is not particularly offensive. Not, at least, in a context like:

Oh, you silly tit!

I was attempting to demonstrate to somebody that the word is not offensive, at least not in BrE, and had assumed that the etymology would back me up. I was guessing it would have more to do with small birds than with teats. However, the Online Etymological Dictionary fails me here:

tit (n.2)

1540s, a word used for any small animal or object (as in compound forms such as titmouse, tomtit, etc.); also used of small horses. Similar words in related senses are found in Scandinavian (Icelandic tittr, Norwegian tita "a little bird"), but the connection and origin are obscure; perhaps, as OED suggests, the word is merely suggestive of something small. Used figuratively of persons after 1734, but earlier for "a girl or young woman" (1590s), often in deprecatory sense of "a hussy, minx."

That doesn't really sound like the tit of you silly tit. The OED is better but not very illuminating either:

tit, sb.7 slang. Etymology: Of uncertain origin: perh. f. tit sb.6; cf. tit sb.3, twit sb.1 2 b.

A foolish or ineffectual person, a nincompoop.

So, in the unlikely event that someone is better informed than the OED, what is the etymology of this sense of the word tit? Is it related to the birds? To teats? To something altogether different?

  • I've only heard of "silly twit", here in the US. Oh yeah, and that probably was from watching Monty Python! :-) – Kristina Lopez Sep 29 '15 at 20:42
  • @KristinaLopez yeah, but the Brits use tit quite often. See, for example here and the OED definition I quote. I don't think I've ever heard it outside the UK though, no. – terdon Sep 29 '15 at 20:44
  • Sounds like, from the OED's perspective, tit originally mean "small" (titmouse etc), and thence to a "small woman", then to "young (i.e. smaller than fullgrown) woman" aka "girl", then "silly girl" (as young people are perceived by not-young people), thence to just "silly person" in general. Or am I reading too much into that? – Dan Bron Sep 29 '15 at 20:56
  • @DanBron sounds reasonable enough. I'm hoping for a more definitive answer. Of course, if the OED don't have it, I don't know who will. – terdon Sep 29 '15 at 21:02
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Tit is an interesting term with different contrasting meanings. Regarding the connotation of foolish person the origin is unclear, but might come from twit as ODO suggests:

  • Few words in English have such snigger-inducing contrasts in meaning. In the name for small songbirds, tit is probably of Scandinavian origin and related to Icelandic titlingur ‘sparrow’.

  • It first appeared in English in the Middle Ages in the longer equivalent titmouse, though mice had nothing to do with it—the second element was originally mose, which also meant ‘tit’. It changed to mouse in the 16th century, probably because of the bird's small size and quick movements.

  • In Old English a tit was a teat or nipple—it is from the same root as teat (Middle English).

  • In modern English it is a term for a woman's breast, a use that arose in the USA in the early 20th century. Since the 1970s British tits and bums and American tits and ass have suggested crudely sexual images of women.

  • As a name for a foolish person, used since the 19th century, tit may be the same word, or it may have evolved from twit.

Twit (noun) : (Etymonline)

  • "foolish, stupid and ineffectual person," 1934, British slang, popular 1950s-60s, crossed over to U.S. with British sitcoms. It probably developed from twit (v.) in the sense of "reproach," (1520s, twite), but it may be influenced by nitwit.

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