When we talk about paying close attention to detail, we might talk about looking at “every jot and tittle.” But what does that mean?
“Every jot and tittle” has long been used when one is talking about detail, about making sure that every single part of something is examined and looked at. If someone says that they want you to look through an essay and that they want every jot and tittle looked at, you know they want you to go through it with a fine toothed comb and look for every tiny possible spelling, punctuation or grammar mistake.
If a parent tells their child that they can’t leave the dinner table until every jot and tittle of their dinner is eaten, the child knows they have to finish off every single tiny morsel there is. But what do the words actually mean? And where do they come from? They have quite a history; in-fact the expression has a history that spans thousands of years.
The historical jot and the historical tittle are part of the field of language and alphabet. The word jot is the English translation of the ancient Greek “iota.” Interestingly, although we have our English translation “jot,” we also still use that original Greek word, “iota,” in a very similar way to which we use the word jot – to describe a minuscule amount or quantity (e.g “There is not one iota of evidence that the man is guilty!)
This is all because iota is actually the smallest letter of the ancient Greek alphabet, the same alphabet that gives us alpha, beta, theta, gamma, omega and so on and so on. In our alphabet, iota translates as “i” and for the Greeks it would have been a small mark which they would have put under their vowels to turn it from that vowel into the iota. That is where we get the idea of jot being to do with minute detail – it’s because in reality the jot, or the iota, was a very tiny mark which although tiny actually made all the difference to the meaning of a word.
Now if we look at the tittle, we see that too has a tie in with old languages, although the tittle is still actually in use today, in our very own alphabet. Yes, the tittle is actually the dots which we place on top of our lower case i’s and lower case j’s – again, a tiny mark which is used to give important distinction. The tittle as we know it does not have such an ancient past as the jot – the tittle only really came into use in the 11th century.
In the New Testament Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 5 verse 18 it says “till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled.” (NKJV) Here then we have a clear use of jot and tittle in the way we use it now, meaning minuscule amounts. Of course, as already stated, the tittle as we know it wouldn’t have existed for over a thousand years after these words were supposedly spoken, so in the original documents it wouldn’t have been written as tittle. It is likely that the early biblical translators put tittle in place of the Greek “keraia,” which is a little hook used in a similar way to a jot. Anyway, regardless of translation issues, we have our meaning, and we can see clearly where it comes from.
There is one challenger for the origin of jot which is worth mentioning, and that is the Hebrew letter yodh, which was the smallest letter in the Hebrew alphabet, just like the iota was the smallest letter in the Greek. Certainly it can be seen that yodh sounds a lot similar to jot than iota does, but it is generally considered that iota is the correct root, having been first through a Latin translation to jota and then through to the English jot. Yodh no doubt had some influence on the word at some point in its history, but the Greek-Latin-English root is generally considered to be the one that led to the word we use today.
This is a fascinating subject because it shows the evolution of language across thousands of years, showing that words from that time are still in use today. And there have been further developments too – we have jot as a verb now, to jot is to to write something down quickly, the emphasis there being on the quickly part – just the most important little details. And the phrase tittle-tattle meaning small talk also comes from the same tittle we’ve discussed, again meaning small.