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.”

64 thoughts on ““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. 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?

      1. Yes, the That Man that It Was was originally Adolf Hitler but as the war and the series continued it came to refer to Handley himself. ITMA also gave us TGIF (“Thank Goodness It’s Friday”), and since this is now a US-based global restaurant chain this is surely also a NOOB.

  8. “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

  9. “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).

    1. 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).

  10. 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?

    1. Humourless? Out here, we consider them hilarious. Their humour is practical. and their cars are the joke. 🙂

  11. 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)

  12. 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.

  13. 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.

  14. 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.

      1. 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’.

    1. In Vanuatu the official creole language Bislama (pidgin English) uses the word titi for breasts. I saw a UN poster at a health clinic there that used the word in the local version of Breast is Best. The language was derived from the English of early sailors, so has many similar vernacular words.

  15. 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.

  16. 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!

    1. I have seen Ta-Ta being used in Telugu Movies in India until 90’s. Even heard some people use it now. The usage however dropped since the American influence grew in India.

    1. “Tatty bye” is very much associated with the great veteran comedian Ken Dodd. He is worth looking up on youTube if you haven’t come across him. A true original. He originates from Liverpool and is still touring his comedy show at the age of 89.

  17. I hadn’t heard the term used for “thank you” until tonight when my grandfather was talking about it and how no one ever says it anymore and “maybe it was an English thing” (his family was Irish, Scotch-Irish, and Londoner before emigrating to Canada and the US). A search brought me right here and to a quick answer!

  18. As far as I am concerned, “ta” for thank you (pronounced *tah*) has absolutely nothing to do with “ta ta” (with short a) meaning goodbye. When I was a child in Lancashire both ta ta and ta (thanks) were universal. People will still say “ta love” in shops in Lancashire and Yorkshire. Since there is a great deal of Nordic in northern English dialects, I have always assumed Ta can be traced back to Tak, thank you in Danish and other Scandinavian languages. There are many other examples of Nordic words that were in common use, at least up to 50 years ago, which would be unintelligible to people from the south,

    Ta ta is less easy to pin down. All I know is that it is synonymous with bye bye and completely interchangeable. There was never a confusion between ta and ta ta because of the distinct change of vowel sound. A bit like Ma in Mandarin.

    As a child I would often use “tata” as a noun meaning trip or outing. “We’ll go tatas after tea,” adults would say to young children. Presumably this was because people said ta ta when leaving and toddlers picked up on this. In my view both are distinct British usage, and mainly from northern England at that.

    Heaven help us, this thread has been going on for years and has assumed a life of its own. Perhaps time to say ta very much and ta ta.

  19. I’m in the U.S.A. and had never heard “ta” until I was playing a word game online with players from Tasmania. In a chat, I complimented a fella on a high-scoring word, and he replied, “Ta.” I initially thought it sounded dismissive, and I asked him what it meant. He told me, and after that another Tassie player used it. Now I love it and use it myself when I think to.

  20. I was under the impression that ta-ta, which means good-bye, comes from a region of India. It was picked up by the Brits who were in India during colonial rule. My grandfather, who was born in Bangalore, explained this to me.

  21. My grandmother used to say ‘TTFN’ to me when I was a toddler in the early 1950s. I only learned much later that it came from ITMA.
    Later in my childhood we visited Norway. Back at school, I accidentally said ‘tak’ instead of ‘merci’ in a French conversation lesson. Of course, everyone thought I had said ‘ta’!

  22. Ken Dodd use to say “tatty bye” . Often heard Tara luv on Coronation Street. In London where I was born we always used Ta for thank you. Or “ta very much”. Ta Ta was always goodbye. Ta ta luv.

  23. One frequent use when I was growing up in Birmingham UK was the phrase “ta and t’ra” (Thanks and goodbye) usually at the end of a phone conversation. A slightly different issue was the use of tata for a (walking) trip – my kids always wanted to go “tatas”, which by some magical vowel slide became “going tots”

  24. I’m a Yank who lived in London for a few years as a teenager, decades ago. I listened to the brand-new Radio 1 (pop music) and watched mostly American imports on the telly. (We loved the far superior color quality over what we saw in the U.S.) I definitely remember ta for thanks, and ta-ta for goodbye. I don’t remember ever hearing ta-ra, but do remember TUTTY-bye (not tatty). And despite all the comments above I cling to a vague impression that ta could also be bye. I wonder why?

  25. My teacher said that “ta ta” in “ta-ta for now” comes from Japanese. I wonder if it is true. So I searched Google and this article appeared. And I see that “ta ta” comes from only Britain, isn’t it? So please tell me what country “ta ta” in “ta ta for now” was born in?

  26. I have to admit coming from UK town which was settled by Scandinavian ( we used to say Danes) or Vikings, the use of Ta is still in use and slightly unusual for such a southerly English town. I strongly believe this is a derivative of the Norse ‘Tak’ and has stood the test of time. It is such an easy, pleasant and endearing word which has softened in pronunciation over the centuries.

  27. I first heard “ta-tas” for titties in 1982’s An Officer and a Gentleman, when David Keith’s character spots leading lady Debra Winger’s best friend, played by Lisa Blount, and remarks on her “bodacious ta-tas.” The phrase caught on and was the title of a hardcore porn film a few years later, and has also been memorialized by a music album, and at least one bar.

  28. In Burma (now Myanmar), the term for goodbye is “tar tar”; it would appear highly likely that the term was acquired by British colonials, and then made its way into the wider English vocabulary as “ta ta”.

  29. Interesting. The Origins of Ta-Ta are clearly British and its use is widespread in the former British colony, India. It has been so pervasive, that it has been assimilated and nativized in vernacular languages. This is significant, as Indian languages have no term for saying good bye. Ta – Ta thus filled the void. It is commonly used and very popular in infantile parlance. However, Educated and elitist speakers eschew the term as being downmarket.

  30. In Australia, the following are common:

    — Ta ta (pronounced ‘ta-tar’) = bye
    — Ta (pronounced ‘tar’) = thank you when the occasion calls for a low key/ self-effacing thank you (when accepting a compliment, when someone’s handed you something)
    — Ta muchly = thank you very much (frivolous form you’d use among friends)

    I noticed a comment above suggesting the well-spoken would avoid such expressions, but its usage is universal in Australia.

  31. Im a northerner that moved to Norway over 20 yrs ago. I’ve been fascinated by how many words used in the north and Scotland I recognised when learning Norwegian. It’s interesting listening to my 15 month old granddaughter as her language develops, her pronunciation of har det (ha-dah), which means bye, sounds remarkably similar to ta-ta.

  32. Ta for thank you is standard Scandinavian “tak”. England had the Danelaw for hundreds of years, with a huge influence of standard English and our dialects. What we now call Scotland had Norse settlements, Norwegian territories, a D traded/trades across the North Sea.
    Jim Davies

  33. When l was a child and we were about to take the dog a walk, we use to always say: “Are we taking you ta tas”.

  34. TATA was a businessman in India mainly in steel and auto industry. Once there used to be Trucks in India made by TATA only. On the Back of the trucks there used to be slogan OK then there was TATA logo and people started saying OK TATA. Later it was used as a replacement of OK bye-bye and it became common in then British India and then later in other parts of the world

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  36. ‘ta ta’ (Bye-Godbewithyou)
    See you again in the same way,
    This Tamil word is the word that refers to the Buddha as Tathagatha (as it is), the word of blessing (hand gesture and movement) to bid farewell is to convey you will be that when we see again as that …..

    The English took it from the Tamils ​​and used the word taa taa to bid farewell( albeit it it said to be colloquial) just like that word out of christian influence BYE (God be with you) which came much later and became formal but the philosophy behind wishing or blessing a person when in separation is from the Samana heritage….

    In Tamil the letter ஃ is the state of complete unity of vowel-consonant, subject-object within us eternally and it coresponds with seeing someone forever in the same state…

    This ஃ is the Samana philosophical position of Tathagatha (tatha- same that, Katha-kathi- will be) the origin of bidding farewell in the words of Taatha is from the Samana tradition which the Buddha is from…..

    Taa taa

  37. I can’t believe I skimmed through years of comments and no one mentioned Disney’s Adventures of Winnie the Pooh. The character Tigger in Blustery Day says with a laugh “TTFN. Ta Ta for now!” as he exits. One source says it doesn’t appear in Milne’s books but rather voice actor Paul Winchell ad libbed it on a suggestion from his wife.
    That’s a wonderful thing about Tiggers!

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