The 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:
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.”