TIPITIWITCHET.

A post by aldiboronti at Wordorigins.org highlights a word the OED is apparently planning to include—not a new word at all, but an old one that’s missing a couple of centuries of documentation. From the OED’s Appeals list:

tipitiwitchet, tippitiwitchet, etc. (US, = Venus fly-trap):
   interdate 1763-1940

Aldi also turned up a site called “Tippitiwitchet explained: from Aphrodite’s Mousetrap, a biography of Venus’s flytrap with facsimiles of John Ellis’s original pamphlet and manuscripts, by E. Charles Nelson and Daniel L. McKinley,” which has a long discussion of the possible origin of the word (first used in print, apparently, by John Bartram, a remarkable botanist and writer whose Observations are online here):

My foray in search of the roots of the word Tipitiwitchet is first into what Eric Partridge calls ‘slang and unconventional English’. A few terms seem particularly enlightening, not all of them slang. ‘Tippet’ is a fur collar, in ordinary English, and Marlowe’s ‘Hempen tippet’, a hangman’s rope, is a poetic embellishment. Farmer has ‘Tippet’ alone meaning a hangman’s rope, with further play on the word in the phrase ‘to turn tippet’. A ‘Twitch’ is a noose for recalcitrant horses. ‘Twitchers’ are either pincers or tight boots; and, of course, ‘Twitchety’ is nervous, fidgety, jerky. Additional uses of ‘Twitch’ and variants of ‘Tippet’ and ‘Tippity’ in the Scottish dialect are recorded. All these terms, coupled with Ellis’s overworked idea of a trap for mammals, to be mentioned later, parallel the term ‘Snatch-box’ that Partridge records as used for vulva in popular parlance. Some aspect of the ‘Toothed Vagina’ may be relevant, as can be traced out in Stith Thompson’s Motif Index of Folk Literature.

Further, more specifically American, although the technique must be more widespread, a ‘Twitch‑up’ is a trap for small animals especially rabbits, consisting of a noose attached to a bent stick or sapling that springs upward when tripped.
Again, Vance Randolph, in his volume of Ozark folk stories, records in no less than seven different tales, the more or less current (early twentieth century) use of the term ‘Twitchet’ for vulva or associated part of the female pudendum. Finally, vestiges of Elizabethan (and later) English, not yet stifled by radio and television, are heard from senior citizens at a mid-coast Maine hamlet – far from Tipitiwitchet country. They speak of ‘Twitchet Avenue’, disregarding both its present sanitized label and its presumed current lack of saleable feminine attractions.
Thus, Bartram’s ‘little tipitiwitchet’ was a vulva-like grasper that wrestled its prey into submission. One might add, for a touch of surrealism, the illusions generated among the distant, imaginative English naturalists, when they had both sportive names and Dobbs’ fox‑trap hyperbole to spur them on (and no plants at hand, to correct perspective!). Ellis gave a fervid enough account, after he had seen living plants, although he was correct to impute a deadly aim to the plant’s behaviour. While Linnaeus might innocently romanticize that the trapped insect was innocuously released as soon as it became quiet, Ellis correctly surmized that the hapless prey had no such fate in store for it. He aptly referred to the plant as a ‘machine to catch food’.

It’s a great word and deserves to be restored to circulation.

Comments

  1. “Tippet” is also, in American English, the last, thinnest strand of a fly fisherman’s leader. (In British English, the point of the cast); Golden pheasants also have very striking “tippet” feathers on their necks, though these are fan-shaped, vivid yellow-orange, with a black bar across the tip.

  2. “Tippet” is also, in American English, the last, thinnest strand of a fly fisherman’s leader. (In British English, the point of the cast); Golden pheasants also have very striking “tippet” feathers on their necks, though these are fan-shaped, vivid yellow-orange, with a black bar across the tip.

  3. Tippet also refers to a liturgical vestment in Anglican churches. It’s a little collar thingee that goes over the alb, and under the chasuble or stole, whichever the priest happens to be wearing. Since it is intended for added warmth, it isn’t used much in the US anymore.

  4. And now I’m reminded of Flanders and Swann’s great line (in Guide to Britten, I think), “If Boosey can Hawke it then Michael can Tippett.”

  5. *wanders off singing “A tippet, a tappet, I put it in my bappet.”*

  6. Ok – a friend of mine is translating some medieval cookbooks from Dutch and couldn’t find some of them in her modern Dutch dictionary. Do you know of any places where she might be able to look up these words?

  7. Eyja: I suggest you or your friend post a question (with the words) at Wordorigins.org (http://p098.ezboard.com/fwordoriginsorgfrm1 ); there are several Dutch posters there with access to large Dutch dictionaries, and I’m sure one of them could help. (Whoever posts will have to register with ezboard first, but that’s simple and doesn’t require any personal information.)

  8. Um, did Bartram say where he found the word? From its form, it looks suspiciously like the pattern of Anglicization often applied to Native American names in the Northeast. Compare Ipswich, Nantasket, kinnikinnick (Berberis sp.), Pawtucket, and so forth. It may have been “normalized” to resemble recognized English words like “tippet” or “twitch” because that’s what the Native word sounded like to Anglos.

  9. Just came across “tipitiwitchit” and several more obscure and juicy sounding words which seem to beg Languagehat’s attention in the 2014 “The naming of the shrew”. I couldn’t find good clues in the wider Internet, apart from a champ horse and a Halloween tale kitten both named “Tippity Witchet”, and then I checked this site … and of course!

    John Wright, the mycologist (and part time etymologist) of this word-packed UK book, had this to say about tipitiwitchit and flytrap: John Bartram, a XVIII c. US naturalist, referred to it as “waggish plant, waggishly described” (but no further details). But in another letter, Bartram describes another naturalist, Mr. Dobbs, a purveyor of flytrap specimens and seeds, an old guy who just married a teenage bride, certain Justina Davis: “It is now in vain to write to Him for seeds or plants of Tipitiwitchit now he has got one of his own to play with.”

    The Latin genus name Dionaea, definitely calls it a consort of Dionysus.

  10. Over nine years later, the OED still hasn’t created an entry for it.

  11. They’ll get to it eventually, I suppose.

    The form I know that means ‘vulva’ is twidget.

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