I continue to be astonished by the variety of my own language. All my life I’ve enjoyed (though probably never used) the rather jocular cliché “tickling the ivories” for playing the piano, and now I learn, via David Crystal’s DCblog, that lots of people use the similar but (to me) odd-sounding “tinkling the ivories”:

A Northern Irish correspondent writes to say that he had recently been to the USA to visit a friend from his home country, and heard him use the phrase tickle the ivories [i.e. informally play the piano]; my correspondent had only ever heard tinkle the ivories. They found both on the Internet but no explanation of why there is a difference. Is there a British / American factor here, for instance?

Crystal writes “there’s no suggestion of any transatlantic difference in the citations. On the contrary, both usages have solid histories in the UK,” but I think he’s expressing himself carelessly; both usages may coexist in the UK, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen or heard the “tinkle” version from an American. I may, however, be wrong, so I’ll ask the Varied Reader: do you use the “tinkle” variant, and if so, where are you from?


  1. des von bladet says

    I’m used to “tinkle”; I’m from the UK; (probably only passive usage; my father certainly used to say it).
    “Tickle” is unfamiliar.

  2. South-east England – only ever heard “tickle”. “Tinkle the ivories” would surely tempt too many rude jokes (at least it would have in my family/neighbourhood), since “tinkle” is, of course, a childish euphemism for “urinate”.

  3. Didn’t Liberace (or some pianist) say that the reason he kept a piano in the bathroom was “in case I want to tinkle”?

  4. Central England — it’s always been “tinkle” for me. As DC explains, the origin has to do with making a tinkly noise by playing with the piano keys.
    Is that also the origin of the connection with peeing? The noise that results when directing one’s stream at the porcelain?

  5. I’m working on a line about Gershwin, and I have discovered that it’s hard to find other phrases for “play the piano.” The tickle thing is too much of a cuteness.

  6. Tinkle for me as an Ontario Canadian, although I was born Mersey-side in the UK.

  7. Tinkly Winkly says

    There is no word on whether the company plans to develop a piano version for those who prefer to tinkle the ivories while tinkling.

    Interactive product, Guitar Pee, converts urinal user into music whiz.

  8. “Tinkle” is something one can do. Tinkle around on the piano. (Perhaps “noodle” is an alternate to avoid the remotely rude implication of “tinkle”.)
    But “tickle the ivories” is always “tickle” in my 60 years of experience, around 55 reading, and more than that listening, including hanging out as a child in places with tinkly upright pianos.

  9. Sorry: Pacific Northwestern US native transplanted to UK English-speaking Catalunya.

  10. In the U.S. “tinkle” means “to pee” and that’s its only definition, so no, you would never hear an American use the word “tinkle” to mean “to tickle” or, really, to mean anything other than “to pee”.

  11. I grew up with ‘tickle the ivories” but have seen discussion of the “tinkle” idiom as well.

  12. I’m an American (Kalamazoonian/Clevelander), and I think I was only familiar with the “tinkle” variant, though it’s not an expression I’ve heard too often.

  13. Tinkle down economy:

    it’s called tinkle down economy..we give all to the richest..and when they are full,they whip out the shlong,and tinkle down upon us.

    (Anonymous commenter at Yahoo! Answers)
    Tickle down economy: Not known by Google.

  14. I can’t recall ever hearing “tinkle” in AmEng swapped into the fixed phrase “tickle the ivories” (which has a very old-timey showbiz Ed-Sullivan-as-emcee sort of feel for me) but certainly “tinkle” or “tinkly” as (often pejorative) ways of describing the way a piano sounds or a particular way it can be made to sound seems perfectly idiomatic in AmEng to me. There’s a Thelonius Monk composition titled “Trinkle Tinkle,” which is perhaps a punning allusion to “Twinkle Twinkle” as well as to the stereotypical sound of a piano (Monk’s instrument).

  15. Andrew, in this USian’s vocabulary “tinkle” can refer to the sound made by a little bell, or by other things (not necessarily falling urine), as it did before the micturative sense took over; though I admit that the broader use of the word is now a little contaminated. For one speaker of the language to say “that’s the only thing it means here” can never carry much weight in this evidence-based world.

  16. As I may have mentioned more, Thelonious Monk’s wife is said to have referred to his style of piano playing as “melodious thunk”.

  17. Only ever heard ‘tinkle the ivories’ in New Zealand

  18. SE England transplanted to SE Asia in 1985. Until I saw David Crystal’s article I only knew ‘tinkle the ivories’. I don’t think I’ve ever heard either version actually uttered. If I’d seen ‘tickle the ivories’ before reading the article I would probably have assumed it was a typo.

  19. Somehow you can fit in the old story about Errol Flynn who, when drunk, would play piano with his manly part.
    Tickle, indeed.

  20. Five minutes research with Google Books strengthens my intuition that “tickle” is the original word, with “tinkle” a later eggcorn encouraged by the piano’s tinkling sound. “Tickle the ivories” has lots of attestations in 1941; “Tinkle” has none (on the first page of hits) until 1951. There are a few slang dictionaries that gloss the “tickle” version alone, and a few others that say “tickle (or tinkle) …”. Your readership seems to suggest that “tinkle” now has overwhelming market share.

  21. I’m pretty sure I’ve only heard tickle. It’s such an old-fashioned phrase, I’ve probably heard it more in old movies than in conversation, but fwiw, I’m in chicago. Although since everyone seems pretty sure that they’ve only ever heard one version or the other and there’s no clear geographic pattern, it looks like everyone’s hearing is suspect…

  22. Commonwealth English (S. Africa), never heard of ‘tinkle the ivories’ until this post.. it was always ‘tickle’ in everything I read.

  23. Garrigus Carraig says

    I’ve only heard tickle the ivories here in the U.S., and I’ve heard the tinkling of the piano to refer to its sound. Tinkling the ivories would have sounded very much like an eggcorn to me before today.

  24. South East England: tinkle.

  25. “Tickle” only here (I’m from Ohio.) I ran across a nice short discussion of “tickle the ivories” here: http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/382150.html .

  26. I think Crystal is also careless in his account of the “phonaesthetic” similarity between “tickle” and “tinkle”. I don’t exactly know what “phonaesthetic” means, but the vowels of the first syllables don’t sound much alike in typical American English, due to the palatal off-glide inserted before engma — compare “bang”, “length”, which also have that glide. This glide is not inserted before the engma created by regressive assimilation of /n/ to a velar in a following word, so you can contrast a casual pronunciation of “tin cup”, without the [j], with the first syllable of “tinkle”, which has a [j].

  27. I don’t detect any such palatalization in my own AmE, and I’ve never heard it described. Can you point us to some sources?

  28. John, no, I don’t recall seeing the diphthongization before velar nasal written about. It was first pointed out to me by my teacher David Stampe a long time ago. Start with my example “bang” and consider other words with the digraph vowel before velar nasal in the same word, like “bank, sank, wrangle”. Here, for me and others, the diphthongization is always present, and the glide is very prominent. Listen.

  29. Well, most of your examples involve /æŋ/, which would certainly would involve an off-glide in the Northern Cities accent, though not in my just-outside-NYC accent, where only /m/ and /n/ trigger breaking of /æ/. Then there’s the large area where /iŋ/ and /ɪŋ/ are merged as [ijŋ].

  30. I’ve given examples of the glide insertion between the three front vowels and following velar nasal. It’s a natural change, since the tongue has to move toward the back of the mouth to get from its position for a front vowel to the position for a velar. But there are complications — for one thing, the velar nasal may be pulled forward under the influence of the front vowel, limiting the gliding. And I find no glide in “finger” and similar words where /k/ does not follow the velar nasal.
    In respect to Crystal’s essay, I was simply making the point that for many Americans, there is more difference between “tickle” and “tinkle” than just a trace of nasality in the latter, as Crystal claims.

  31. California (now Aus): tinkle

  32. Bud Powell one night in Birdland actually did “tinkle the ivories” when pissed off he took a leak on the ivories of the Birdland piano. Now, you would have to say “tinkle or tickle the plastics” since piano/keyboard keys are no longer made of ivory, the use of such now being banned by the ban on ivory.
    Ur fiend,

  33. Australian, and I’ve only ever heard tinkle.

  34. As a Malaysian with British English education, it’s always been “tinkle the ivories”…

  35. marie-lucie says

    I think I have heard both “tickle” and “tinkle” in Canada.

    Someone above referred to the similar phonesthetic qualities of the two words, and a commenter objected that the vowels were too dissimilar. I think that the ‘tinkly’. ‘tick-tock’ phonesthetic effect of both words comes from the t and k, helped by the high front vowel. To me the difference in vowel quality depends on the nasality or not; the difference in length is extremely slight when spoken rapidly in the course of normal conversation. The description including a diphthong seems to me grossly exaggerated by the phonetics teacher, depending on a very slow pronunciation of the words in isolation.

  36. In the USA you “tickle” the ivories. As opposed to you hearing the “tinkling” of the ivories.
    And for the person who posted “tinkle down economy”, it is actually a “trickle down” economy.

  37. David Marjanović says

    And for the person who posted “tinkle down economy”, it is actually a “trickle down” economy.

    It was a joke about what exactly trickles down in a trickle-down economy.

  38. I am from Durban on the east coast of South Africa and I hadn’t heard of the tickle version before. It is weird seeing some other South African writing the opposite.

  39. I say ‘tinkle’ and I grew up in Maryland, USA, although I now live in Atlanta, Georgia.

  40. Carolyn says

    I’m from Maryland, USA, also. I heard “tickle the ivories.”
    Think about it:
    “Tickle” is what the fingers are doing to the ivories, in a certain kind of playing of the piano. You can’t “tinkle” the ivories, but the tickling thereof may result in a tinkling sound. ‘Nough said.

  41. To me, only the spelling, ” ‘Nuff said,” seems acceptable. Certainly, this was influenced by the fact that I read a lot of old Spider-Man comics when I was a kid. I always assumed that the fixed phrase was Stan Lee’s own invention, so anything but his spelling seems wrong.

  42. Yes, I would spell it ’nuff and have always seen it so spelled, but there is, of course, no official standard for such things.

  43. Thanks for saving my sanity. Born and raised north of Chicago, 60+, ancestors from Scotland and Norway. I don’t recall where or how I learned it, but I thought it was tinkle.

    When I used it recently (actially said it, long story), my wife (born St Paul, MN, ancestors Scotland/Finland) who is a life long piano player, laughed at me and told me it was tickle.

    A lively debate ensued and I was about to admit defeat until Google led me here.

  44. I remember Stan Lee as writing “Nuff sed!”

  45. “Tickle” may make better sense in reference to playing the piano due to its meaning (light playful touch or stroke with the fingers).

    “Tinkle” on the other hand is a sound/chime, or to urinate (US). Typically, bells (not piano keys) come to mind when “tinkle” and “chime” are used.

  46. marie-lucie says


    The ragtime composer Charles Hunter published his first piano rag Tickled to Death in 1899, probably after being diagnosed with TB. No doubt there was a double pun there! He survived and published a few other rags, the last one Back to Life in 1905, as his health seemed to improve, but he died the following year, at the age of 30.

  47. Adam McCrory says

    Also Northern Irish, but now living in Los Angeles (for about 16 years). Came to this thread because I’m having this exact conflict of idioms…grew up with everyone saying “tinkle the ivories” – wherein ‘tinkle’ means a light musical sound (like “the tinkling of the wind chimes”) – but here in the US most people seem to say “tickle the ivories”, which I suppose makes sense as well…anyone know to whom the original phrase can be attributed?? Cheers

  48. Google Books shows both expressions coming into vogue in the early years of the 20th century, with no obvious single source.
    As early as 1850 we have

    For a new hope by thee has sprung:
    The tiny hand which careless flung
    Its tinkling fingers o’er thy keys,
    Now, spans thy octaves broad, with ease;
    And wakes the pleased and startled echoes round,
    With the rich volumes of harmonious sound.

    But while the youthful powers unfold,
    Thou, well-tried friend, art getting old!
    Thy strings are cracked, thy ivories jingle,
    And with thy tones sad discords mingle.
    Thy slender legs, and plain, unvarnished case,
    Are out of fashion; direful, deep disgrace!

    (Sarah S. Allen, Addressed to an Old Piano Forte. In Charles William Everest, The Memento.)

    Tinkle in the sense of ‘urinate’ is not recorded until 1960.

  49. I use Tinkle the ivories! I grew up in Hawaii but with an Australian mother? ????????‍♀️

  50. I’m Australian and I insist it’s “tickling” the ivories. Carolyn is spot on – it’s about the action of playing and “tickling” the keys. A good player’s hands seem to glide over the keys as if they’re just tickling them. “Tinkling” is just plain wrong, and I suspect those who say they’ve never heard anything else aren’t old enough to have been exposed to the original and correct version before it became corrupted. It’s similar to the way that you now hear people saying “one foul swoop”, or writing “here, here” or “towing the line”. They don’t understand the origin of the terms, so they just substitute what they think fits or what they thought they heard.

  51. You’re right about “tickle” being the original, but that doesn’t make “tinkle” wrong — it’s just a later development. People are always doing that sort of thing; it’s how language changes. At any rate, I’m glad you revived this thread, because it gives me a chance to repair an astonishing omission: apparently nobody, me included, bothered to consult the OED. Their entry on the phrase should settle the issue of origin:

    6. a. To touch (a stringed instrument, etc.) lightly as in tickling a person; to stir (a fire, etc.) slightly; to play or operate (the keys of a keyboard instrument or machine); esp. in to tickle the ivories (ivory n. 5d). colloquial.

    1589 T. Nashe Anat. Absurditie Ep. Ded. sig. ¶iiii To tickle a Citterne, or haue a sweete stroke on the Lute.
    1597 W. Shakespeare Romeo & Juliet i. iv. 36 Let wantons light of hart Tickle the senceles rushes with their heeles.
    1740 W. Somervile Hobbinol i. 143 Hark from aloft his tortur’d Cat-gut squeals, He tickles ev’ry String.
    1771 Ann. Reg. 1770 Acct. of Bks. 243/2 One of them began to tickle his guittar.
    1896 W. W. Skeat & T. Hallam Pegge’s Two Coll. Derbicisms Tickle the fire.
    18.. in Daily Chron. 10 Dec. (1902) 9/1 A country whose soil, it has been well said, only requires to be tickled with a hoe to laugh with a harvest.
    1926 H. Crane Let. 5 Dec. (1965) 278 Tickling the typewriter keys is a stiff proposition.
    1930 S. Sassoon Mem. Infantry Officer viii. ii. 194 He now told us that he had discovered a place where we could ‘buy some bubbly and tickle the ivories’.
    1940 M. Sadleir Fanny by Gaslight ii. 371 Chunks..shouted to the pianist to tickle the ivories.
    1980 Times 1 Oct. 12/6 The 24-year-old virtuoso who tickles the very keys once played by Reginald Dixon.

    (The only citation with “tinkle” is “2009 D. Chaytor It’s not always Dark at Seven o’Clock 109 Tom Barber would lift the lid of the piano, stick drawing-pins into the key hammers, and I’d sit down and tinkle the ivories”; it’s s.v. key.)

  52. Thanks for that, languagehat. It’s good to know I’m technically correct, but I guess I’ll just have to accept language evolving on that one. “Tinkling” the ivories will always sound wrong to me though.

  53. To me as well!

  54. Tickle to me. Born and raised in southern California.

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