itsy, bitsy, ditsy...

Benjamin Zimmer bgzimmer at RCI.RUTGERS.EDU
Thu Oct 6 05:34:42 UTC 2005

One of the entries in the BBC Wordhunt appeals list is "ditsy", which the
OED has in two senses:

 a. = DICTY a. a, b. Also, fussy, intricate. [1978]
 b. (Esp. of a woman) stupid, scatterbrained; cute. [1982]

In the US at least, "ditsy"/"ditzy" has been used in various ways to refer
to small or inconsequential things. The earliest I've found is "Ditzy",
the name of a baby's toy from the 1940s.

1946 _Lima (ohio) News_ 19 Dec. 5 (advt.) The Original Ditzy Toy. A gift
for kiddies and "grown-ups" -- Everybody enjoys playing with the "Ditzy"
wiggle toy.
1947 _Iowa City Press Citizen_ 15 July 4 (advt.) Baby and Daddy alike will
be fascinated by the new "Ditzy" animal toys just received at Gibbs Drug
Co. Plastic zebras, giraffes and camels in gay colors are cleverly
designed to do all sorts of gymnastic twists and turns with just a slight
pressure on the base of the toy.
1948 _Iowa City Press Citizen_ 2 Mar. 7 (advt.) These newest arrivals at
Gibbs well-stocked baby department include the marvelously agile "Ditzy"
toy that is so popular with both Daddies and Babies. At just 79c we
suggest you get two "Ditzies" -- one for Poppa, one for Junior.

In the late 1960s, a floral pattern known as a "ditsy print" became
fashionable in women's clothing (the print had something of a revival in
the '90s).

1969 _N.Y. Times_ 15 Nov. 6 (advt.) Fabulous little funky crepes, so
admittedly ditsy they're perfectly delightful. An itsy print on a lot of
background and the flipped-out feeling makes them carry off such charm.
1969 _N.Y. Times_ 3 Dec. 14 (advt.) Here we show a fabulous pair of
"Wallace Beery's"... one in a ditsy little pink or blue Arnel triacetate
jersey print.
1969 _Lima (Ohio) News_ 11 Sep. 5 (advt.) Or mix our herringbone tweed
skirt (shown below) with a ditsy print shirt.

The first cite suggests a connection between "ditsy" and "itsy(-bitsy)",
evidently referring to the small size of the flowers in the print. In
fact, the pattern was also known as an "itsy-bitsy print":

1965 _Oakland Tribune_ 19 Nov. 32/4 Stripes, checks and wild Tahitian
prints appear in some of the boat and beach oriented separates, and even
White Stag has the popular provincial floral pattern — theirs in a classic
button front tapered shirt. This print is turning up in cotton suits,
beach clothes, granny dresses, patio pajamas and everything else — bids
fair to create a fashion flurry if designers will only quit calling it an
"itsy bitsy print."

By the early '70s, "ditsy" could refer to various trifling things, from
jewelry to music, typically with disparaging connotations.

1972 _Chicago Tribune_ 30 May B1/1 Sharon's ring, which James had David
Webb design, is a thick gold band with a large diamond plunked in the
middle and three diamond baguettes on each side. So much more stunning
than those ditsy diamond bands, right?
1972 _Valley News_ (Van Nuys, Cal.) 28/5 Have you ever..picked a printed
fabric that looked so pretty in the hand only to see it look "ditsy" and
dull when covering your favorite new chair?
1973 _Washington Post_ 15 Feb. C3/2 There were no dallying models on the
runway, no ditsy music-- just the Jackson 5, canned.
1973 _N.Y. Times_ 9 Nov. 36/2 So the collections were filled with faithful
copies of the clothes mother wore in the glorious days before World War
II, ditsy darts and all.

The earliest cite I've found referring to a person is from 1973 (with the
<ditzy> spelling):

1973 _Los Angeles Times_ 3 Aug. IV4/3 But what about the ditzy little
secretary who lives with her ditzy mother in a ditzy state? She's trapped
by her lack of sophistication.

This may very well be a transitional sense, since it's a quote from
fashion designer Michael Sklar, talking about bringing high fashion to
"Middle America". It's easy to see how people in the fashion industry
would make the metonymic leap from "ditsy" clothes to the "ditsy/ditzy"
women who wear them.

So there are a number of possible influences in the history of "ditsy":

* "dicty" (as the OED suggests)
* "itsy-bitsy" (at least for "ditsy print")
* "dizzy" and "dotty" (in the 'scatterbrained' sense)

(It makes sense that the <ditsy> spelling would be overtaken by <ditzy> as
the sense shifted to 'dizzy'.)

--Ben Zimmer

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