I have just learned that titch (or tich) is a UK colloquialism meaning ‘a very small person or amount,’ with an associated adjective titchy. (It is apparently derived from one “Little Tich,” a music-hall comedian of a century ago who stood only four feet high; the “Tich” is by way of ironic contrast with Arthur Orton, the gigantic “Titchborne Claimant” in the celebrated impersonation case of the 1870s.) I am glad to know this, but the way in which I learned it infuriated me: I had occasion to look up the Russian word mákhon’kii and found it defined, in the authoritative Oxford Russian Dictionary, as “titchy.” Just that. Now, how in the hell am I supposed to know what “titchy” means? It’s not in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate; fortunately, I have the Cassell Concise on hand, and was able to find out. But I consider it the height of chauvinism and irresponsibility to use parochial definitions like that in a dictionary that is intended to serve the entire English-speaking world. (And yes, I would consider it just as bad if a US-based dictionary used local colloquialisms as definitions.)


  1. Of course, you have to know it’s a parochialism first. There’s no mental element to chauvinism, I suppose. Little Tich is a familiar name to me, but I didn’t realize ‘titchy’ came from him!

  2. True, but if a lexicographer isn’t aware of the geographic spread of a word, he’s not much of a lexicographer!

  3. I agree it’s a colloquialism, but not necessarily one confined to Britain. I grew up in Ohio and was familiar with the term “tich.” It was commonly used when a hostess asked if a lady would like more: “Oh, just a tich.”
    The equivalent of “smidge,” I think.

  4. Ditto Sue from Northern Virginia, but I haven’t heard it for years.
    (I actually half-thought, until just this minute, it was part of my family’s idiolect, but it must have been picked up locally – my parents are neither of them from the area and I don’t remember anyone on either side of the family apart from us using it.)

  5. Oh come on, hat, you had a chance to use a dictionary and you learned vocabulary in two languages.

  6. Hm. I thought it was a common slang word; I remember using it as wee tot growing up in Upstate NY. Then again, I did have every single Asterix and Obelix book ever published (anyone with a remote appreciation of puns ought look up these works of genius), and the word “titchy” was often applied to Asterix.

  7. And why titchy, not itty-bitty or just wee? What’s the difference between makhon’kij, manen’kij and maljusen’kij? I wish they cleared that up a bit (I can’t).

  8. All those Russian words are formed by baby-talking malen’kij, right? Or do any of them have independent etymology? (Sorry, I’m haring off on a tangent here.)

  9. They all mean ” tiny”, but not necessarily baby-talk, could be used in informal “tiny” situations;
    “manen’kij” is dialectical variation.
    The root is the same.

  10. Hmph. OK, I abandon the point about geographical distribution — it’s clearly US as well. But it’s still not a good definition, dammit. If you’re going to use a cute equivalent-register word like that, you owe it to your reader to add a standard-language equivalent (in this case, “tiny”).
    Zizka: Quite right, and I wouldn’t have minded so much except for my long-standing grudge against bilingual dictionary-makers on this account, with Oxford a prime offender. (I know the lexicographers are an entirely different bunch, but I still picture a group of Oxford dons in full academic regalia, sitting around the table with their port and chuckling dusty academic chuckles as they try to top each other’s gems excavated from the word-hoard. “I say, Snodgrass, what do you say to ‘titchy’?” “Praestans, old fellow!”)

  11. Richard Hershberger says

    Add my vote to Americans familiar with this term. I learned it from my father, who was raised in western central Pennsylvania (or is that eastern western Pennsylvania? Either way, Bedford County.) I don’t recall hearing it outside the family, so I probably assimilated both the expression and the fact that it is not generally used. It’s not in my active vocabulary, but now that you have reminded me of it I may start using it.

  12. Michael Farris says

    I’ve never ever heard of titchy before (and I’m not sure I’m glad I have now).
    My favorite example of this kind of non-translation came when I was trying to find if there’s a good equivalent to Polish cwaniak, the dictionary gave … sly boots (it may have been one word). Well that was no help whatsoever.
    Cwaniak is a person who tries to get out of things (like obligations) and to get other things (like special treatment). It’s usually said in terms of rebuke (I’m on to your game) or the kind of grudging admiration Poles show anyone who can work the system.
    What the hell is a sly boots?

  13. What the hell is a sly boots?
    It means something like the Polish word cwaniak, by all accounts.

  14. My Oxford Hachette French’s entry for “pavane”: “pavane.” Wahey, way to sell me a subscription to the OED, people!

  15. My favorite example of this sort of thing is in Harkavy’s Yiddish-English-Hebrew dictionary, which for Yiddish beygl (meaning “bagel”) gives . . . “cracknel.”
    Whatever that is.

  16. Oh man, that’s classic. I must remember that — it’s the perfect illustration.
    Another from the Oxford Russian: they define kusat’ sebe lokti as “to be whipping the cat.” I still have no idea what that means.
    A different (and less tractable) problem is illustrated by the entry
    koltún (med.) plica (polonica)
    I’m guessing most Russians know what is meant by koltún, and I’m pretty sure very few users of the dictionary would know what is meant by “plica (polonica).” I certainly didn’t. Now, in most cases you wouldn’t want to be defining technical terms in the target language, but in a case like this, where the word being defined is a common one, wouldn’t it make sense to add “a matted filthy condition of the hair”? (Judging by Google results, it also means ‘matted fur (as in cats),’ but that may be a recent semantic development.)

  17. Soviet-era publications often accused troublemakers of “hooliganism.” Was this obscure word of Irish origin in the original Russian text and if so how did it get into the Russian language, or was it an English translation of a Russian term and if so how did it become the standard in English?

  18. The former. I’ve no idea when precisely it got into Russian; long time ago for sure. “Hooligan” is used as “thug”,not just “troublemaker” – with all the derivatives.

  19. I don’t know how tich and titchy are used in UK English, but the US examples sound more like dialect/babytalk alternatives for touch. E.g., “Do you take cream?” “Just a touch.”
    It also sounds similar to the U.S. colloquial tetched (“touched”) in the head, in the sense of being mildly unstable or mentally handicapped. Touchy of course can mean petty, which suggests smallness of mind. In fact, the more I think of it, the more the “Little Tich” connection sounds like a folk etymologie, unless the performer took his stage name from an existing dialect word for touch.

  20. My Oxford Russian-English Dictionary (2nd edition, reprinted 1990 with corrections) defines makhon’kii as “wee”. I guess “tetchy” came in when they completely revised it.

  21. my x-husband (irish-english) still calls our youngest daughter titch. he either picked it up from his dubliner father or his victorian english grandmother who also would call her grandchildren “little sausage”. they never used titch to refer to an amount of milk to put in tea. titch, in my experience, is not a baby word (in the u.k.) and is used by adults or older children as a form of endearment. like mon petit chou. shit like that.

  22. Alice Tichborne says

    Okay, I will be collecting royalties on those using the word ‘titchy’ from this point onwards, having previously been unaware that it was in fact derived from MY name, and all those bastards who point and laugh and go ‘ahaha you were born small’ were in fact begging the question. Ha.

  23. Mike Dixon says

    Thank God I stumbled across your web page about Tich.
    As an Aussie its part of our general lexicon like the Brits, but after 40 years having to write it up, like we have done a million times before, my spell check threw me!!! I checked the famous Aussie Macquarie and even there, the bastion of Aussie sayings and speech not even a cracker of a mention.
    I thought I was going mad!!
    your page was around the 10th on google, I was giving up thinking no one else knows the meaning of tich??
    But hooray and alas you came along thanks a million
    Mike Dixon

  24. Glad I could help! And you might want to pick up a copy of The Australian Oxford Paperback Dictionary (I own the second edition); it has an entry “tich = TITCHY.”

  25. Sheldon Katz says

    What is the yiddish word for troublemaker?

  26. i always thought a titchy was a cocktail….”Fancy a titchy after work, luv?”

  27. I’ve known the word titchy since early childhood but had never thought about its origin until, on a recent trip to the Basque country, I became aware that there is a Basque word titxia (pronounced “titchia”), meaning small. I offer this as a piece of speculative etymology.

  28. “Whipping the cat” has a variety of meanings that varies with culture and time. But the most common refers to itinerant workers, particularly shoemakers, who would board with a family while making all of their clothing or shoes for a year. This was a common practice in 1700s rural America. The origin is not established definitively. In Australia it’s part of a longer phrase “whipping the cat that spilled the milk”, which is the same as the American “crying over spilled milk” (ie, a useless response). It has also stood in as a metaphor for sex, and to refer to the game of whipping somebody across a frozen pond.

  29. Wiktionary defines cracknel as a hard, crisp biscuit (cookie in AmE): no mention of any toroidal nature. It appears in the KJV in 1 Kings 14:13 “And take with thee ten loaves, and cracknels, and a cruse of honey, and go to him: he shall tell thee what shall become of the child.” The KJV margin and most modern translations use cakes.

  30. Well, clearly it should be “ten loaves, and bagels, and a schmeer.”

  31. David Marjanović says

    It has also stood in as a metaphor for sex

    …but then, what hasn’t.

  32. marie-lucie says

    cracknel : This word reminds me of le craquelin, a word I have encountered in the town of Saint-Malo where it is a local specialty. It refers to a type of round dry cracker about 4-5 inches in diameter, which curls into a low bowl-like shape rather than lies flat. It is definitely not a “cookie”. I have seen the word in Canada on packages as a French equivalent of English “cracker”, but it may have been the functional equivalent of “pilot bread” in older days, a staple food that would not spoil during a long voyage.

    Saint-Malo is an old port city at the frontier between Normandy and Brittany, still famous for its medieval ramparts and its history of privateering. It was a major point of departure for Canada in the age of sail. Especially, until WWII it was the home port for the Newfoundland-bound codfish fleet, consisting of large sailing ships called Terre-Neuvas (from Terre-Neuve = Newfoundland). The departure and return of this fleet, which was away for several months, were occasions of public festivities which my parents witnessed just before the war, which put an end to the use of sailing ships.

  33. January First-of-May says

    A few years back I have read some fantasy (or high sci-fi) story in which one (negative, I think, but not sure) character had a particular short-range effect, referred to as “tetch”.
    I was also rather surprised by the word, but did eventually google it and find out that it was basically a dialect form of “touch”.

    Unfortunately, I can’t recall what the story was, and Google and TV Tropes are not helpful (they basically gave me loads of references to Jervis Tetch and his family, a few assorted discussions where the word is used literally, and in Google’s case, a big bunch of dictionary entries).

  34. Prem-a -bald Al says

    You are all wrong about the true meaning of titchy. As a Scottish laddie I was initiated into the use of “Titchie cans” at an early age. Get an empty tin can and punch holes in it. Attach a wire rope to it then fill the can with “titchy wood” (soft decaying wood). Set fire to it-because the wood is damp it will merely smoulder until………..you swing the can round your head when the surge of air will make it burst into flame!
    What innocent fun. Care had to be taken when winding down the operation to avoid unfortunate singeing of the hair.

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