“Ta-Ta”

saveTeeBlackThe New York Times’ Sarah Lyall recently ended eighteen years as a London correspondent. The title of her farewell article, “Ta-Ta London. Hello, Awesome,” made me curious about ta-ta, which I hadn’t  thought of as a Britishism. In fact, my main association with the term is a memory of my mother jokingly saying, “Ta-ta, tatele“–the latter word being a Yiddish diminutive for “father.” A Google search also reminded me of a 1993 “Seinfeld” episode where George quits by saying to his boss, Mr. Tuttle, “Ta ta, Tuttle!”

But ta-ta is indeed of British origin. The OED defines it as ” nursery expression for ‘Good-bye’; now also in gen. colloq. use.” The earliest citation is from 1823, and a notable one can be found in T.S. Eliot’s 1923 “The Wasteland Waste Land”: “Goonight Bill. Goonight Lou. Goonight May. Goonight. Ta ta. Goonight.”

None of the dictionary’s examples come from U.S. sources, but it caught on here fairly early, as is illustrated by this 1889 article from the New York Times:

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During the 1940s, an initialized version of the expression merged via a character on the BBC radio program “Itma.” According to the OED, a “famous saying” of the Cockney Charlady, Mrs. Mopp (played by Dorothy Summers), “were the letters ‘T.T.F.N.’—a contraction of ‘Ta-ta for now’ with which she made her exit.” TTFN emerged decades later as an example of teenage online lingo, presumably on both sides of the Atlantic, peaking sometime in the middle of the decade of the 2000s. I gather that from a comment to a 2012 New York Times review of a play called “Peter and the Starcatcher”: “it tries so hard to be contemporary that it manages to date itself to about five years ago by overusing pop culture references and slang (‘TTFN,’ ‘guuuuuuuurl,’ ‘as if,’ and ‘Oh. My. God.’ to list just a few) from that time.”

A similar sounding word, also with nursery origins, but apparently with no connection to ta-ta, is ta, meaning “thank you.” I believe this is still current in the U.K. (in fact, it just showed up in an English friend’s Facebook feed), but hasn’t made any inroads in the U.S. I had a brief moment of hope when a Google search found it in a line of dialogue in a 2003 William Gibson novel, All Tomorrow’s Parties: “’Cheers,’ Tessa said, ‘ta for the lager.'” But when I looked into it, it turned out that Tessa is Australian, a fact Gibson tried to emphasize by having her use three separate British-Australianisms in one sentence.

I have the sense that a single “ta” is sometimes used in Britain as a shortened version of “ta-ta,” the way one might shorten “goodbye” to “bye.” Any guidance on this point would be appreciated. [Update. Several comments have convinced me that I was mistaken on this point.]

Meanwhile, a more recent term, seemingly American in origin, is ta-tas, or tatas, meaning breasts. It’s been especially prominent since 2004, when an anti-breast-cancer foundation was founded with the name “Save the Ta-tas,” prompting many t-shirts such as the admitted click-bait at the top of this post. I hesitate to speculate on the etymology of the term, but the earliest use I’ve been able to find is from the 1997 book Sexplorations: Journeys to the Erogenous Frontier, by Anka Radakovich: “My own lingerie jones is bras. I like plunging my tatas into lace, satin, and vinyl, and I love shopping at Frederick’s of Hollywood.”

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29 responses to ““Ta-Ta”

  1. Tata is indeed very common usage for goodbye in most parts of Britain, especially in the north where it is often pronounced tarar. As a child in Lancashire I would be asked if I wanted to “go tatas”, meaning to go out of the house on a walk or other errand. I now presume this comes from the childish assumption that expeditions were always preceded by adults saying “tata” on leaving. I cannot imagine that “ta” for thank you, again very common even today, has any relationship with tata. I always assumed that it is a derivation of the nordic “tak” and was therefore more prevalent in northern England where Danish influence, in particular, remains strong.

  2. I can imagine an American listener might think they had heard ‘ta’ in place of ‘ta-ta’ (goodbye). There are times in the working class, British person’s life when uttering both syllables of ‘Ta-ta’ are too taxing an exertion and out tumbles ‘Ta-a’ with the last part slurred into the first. (It may be a southern contraction of the northern habit of the fully-pronounced ‘ta-ra’). I don’t think any British speaker uses ‘ta’ for ‘goodbye': ta is strictly for ‘thank you’.

  3. Variations of ta-ta are tsa-ra, tsa-ra for now, tsa-ra now, tsa-ra then. Not sure about the tsa-ra spelling but all are based around Liverpool/Liverpudlian. Also TTFN has been popular – from Ta-Ta For Now. I’ve not come across ta-ta being abbreviated to ta.

  4. In London today, “Ta” is very common, and always is short for “Thank you”. The English equivalent to the Amercan “Thanks”.

    In pedantic department, it is “The Waste Land”, not “The Wasteland”.

  5. I had a (London British) colleague who would sometimes sign off her emails with “Ta”. The informal British term for “Thank you” seemed out of character for her. Certainly nobody else in that workplace used it. But eventually I learnt that “TA” is the texting abbreviation for “Thanks a lot”, which seemed much more likely to be her intention.

  6. I feel certain I heard “Ta very much!” frequently on “Eastenders” or “Coronation Street.” Context would confirm the “Ta” in this case to be “Thanks” or “Thank you.”

  7. Ta = thank you, ta ta means goodbye or more casually ‘bye. ttfn= ta ta for now. I still use it though in the States since 1954.

  8. In addition to my tsa-ra entry above with its extensions, I’ve just recalled another version which is/was in common usage here in the UK. ‘A bit’ is often used here to mean ‘soon’ or a ‘short while'; so “Goodbye, I’ll see you again soon” has shorter forms as ‘See you in a bit’ and ‘Tsa-ra a bit’. The spelling of ta-ta is uncertain as it’s almost never written. Does ‘a bit’ have this usage in the US?

  9. ITMA means ‘Its That Man Again’.
    Mrs Mopp’s catchphrase was ‘Can I do you now?’
    Toodle pip.

  10. “Ta ta” is also rendered as “ta-ra” in Sheffield. It seems to be a Northern thing, as “ta ta” isn’t really (in my experience) used in the South East (“Cheers” would be one alternative), or Wales.

    “Ta” as thank you isn’t connected with this; in abbreviated form some of my colleagues use “TVM” to sign off an email (Ta very much)

    A phrase which much amuses my colleagues in Cardiff, “Ta muchly”, is I think a rather elegant form …
    Love the blog, by the way – thank you

  11. “Ta” had a vogue about 20 years ago here in Australia, although I haven’t heard it since. But I’ve never heard an Australian call a beer, a “lager”. Australian beer aficionados (presumably a large group) can correct me – I think most Australian beers are lager style. So beer is just called beer, or a colloquial name like the amber fluid (and others a bit indelicate for this page).

    • I’m not sure whether or not you’re referring to the “thanks” meaning of “ta” here, but if you are, then it’s not at all the case that it’s fallen out of use in Australia. It’s still extremely commonly used (in my part of the country, at least).

  12. I very rarely, if ever, hear “ta ta” used to mean ‘goodbye’ in Scotland and when I do it’s more likely than not used ironically in a mocking ‘posh’ English accent. Sounds very old-fashioned to my ears.

    “Ta” is used as a short workmanlike ‘Thanks’. The sort of acknowledging noise you make when, busy with something else, someone hands you the thing you just asked them to hand you.

    Also shouldn’t ITMA be in caps as it’s an acronym?
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/It%27s_That_Man_Again

  13. Tata is the eponymous name of the biggest automaker in India. The company has been distinctly humorless, and also litigious, in regard to the whimsical use of “Bodacious Tatas.” http://nancyfriedman.typepad.com/away_with_words/2008/01/provoqative.html

  14. Adding to the comments about the American use of “tatas” for breasts – a friend of my mom’s was fond of the phrase “bodacious tatas!” which I now find is the name of a movie from 1985 (featuring Ron Jeremy, no less)

  15. Ta ta for goodbye is certainly still used in England but was much more common in my youth and I’d be surprised to hear anyone under the age of 30 use it at least down here in the South.

    Ta for thanks is more a working class thing and again probably less common than it was.

    You’d never mix them up and use one ta for goodbye.

    Suspect the growing popularity of ‘cheers’ which does mean both thanks and goodbye may be a factor in their decline.

  16. As to something in the first comment: As a child in Lancashire I would be asked if I wanted to “go tatas”, meaning to go out of the house on a walk or other errand. I now presume this comes from the childish assumption that expeditions were always preceded by adults saying “tata” on leaving.

    Germans don’t say ‘tata’ for goodbye, but we do have the baby-talk expression “Teitei gehen” – (pronounced tie-tie) of that very same meaning, so it seems to me that it doesn’t come from saying goodbye.

  17. Just to press the point home, ‘ta-tas’ does not mean breasts in the UK. Norks, bristols, melons, titties, bazookas, boobs, boobies, bubbies, puppies, bazoom(s), and countless others, yes. Ta-tas, no.

    • “She’s got a lovely pair of countless others”

      • I know this is nothing to do with the post, but I have to record that the French say of a well-endowed lady ‘Il y a du monde au balcon’ – which roughly translates as ‘I see there are lots of people on the balcony’.

  18. Pingback: TGIF | Not One-Off Britishisms

  19. I am one of the few British people who still has a working knowledge of ITMA (I’ve read a number of the scripts and listened to many of the surviving episodes) and whilst TTFN is definitely a coinage from the show, I have not come across TGIF as a regular catchphrase. I think that perhaps the former has been misremembered as the latter. Mrs Mopp would always finish with the initials, to which the star, Tommy Handley, would respond with a much longer, seemingly meaningless series of initials, which he would then explain and which would invariably spell out an amusing and usually surreal sentence. Incidentally, long running BBC Radio presenter, Jimmy Young, regularly used TTFN on his programme from the 1960s to his retirement in 2002. Just thought I’d mention it.

  20. I have been fascinated by the use of the word ta-ta for goodbye, especially by small children, in my part of the world, and wondered how did it end up here, so far away from Britain.I am from India, the northern part of Kerala to be precise.I have never heard anyone else in India use that, anywhere else, apart from the place where I grew up. Perhaps a relic of the British Raj.Now I know!

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