Monday, 17 September 2012

On tickling ivories

A Northern Irish correspondent writes to say that he had recently been to the USA to visit a friend from his home country, and heard him use the phrase tickle the ivories [i.e. informally play the piano]; my correspondent had only ever heard tinkle the ivories. They found both on the Internet but no explanation of why there is a difference. Is there a British / American factor here, for instance?

The origins of the phrase lie in the verb tinkle, which developed a transitive and causative use quite early: ‘to make something tinkle’. OED has some excellent examples from the 16th and early 17th centuries of instruments tickling: ‘Many drums were beaten and basons tinckled about them’, for example. And then in 1817 we find this lovely specimen from a familiar name: ‘She was very fond of tinkling the keys of the old forlorn spinnet’. Jane Austen. Northanger Abbey.

At around the same time, the piano keys were beginning to be called ivory. John Keats is the first citation in the OED: ‘She plays the Music without one sensation but the feel of the ivory at her fingers’. A plural usage probably came soon after, but the first OED citation is not until 1918, ‘the black and white ivories’.

Meanwhile, a transitive use of tickle was also developing – at more or less the same time as tinkle - meaning ‘to touch an instrument lightly, especially one with strings. Thomas Nashe is the first recorded user here: ‘to tickle a citterne’ in 1589. The usage continues - strings are tickled, a guitar is tickled - until we get to the early 20th century, when we find ‘tickling the typewriter keys’ (1926) and then (1930) ‘tickle the ivories’. The Times in 1962 has an interesting comment: ‘Ivory-tickling’ has become an outmoded and faintly derogatory description of piano-playing.’

So, tinkling came first, and tickling later. But there’s no suggestion of any transatlantic difference in the citations. On the contrary, both usages have solid histories in the UK, and I suspect the tickle one has had a great deal of usage in Cockney speech. My feeling is that this is no more than a parallel development where the phonaesthetic similarity – just a little bit of nasality before the /k/ - has made the two verbs seem interchangeable. But tickle the ivories is about three times as common as tinkle the ivories. Probably the ‘faintly derogatory’ sense of tickle has made it a less palatable expression over time.


Anonymous said...

In Australia you could expect to hear "tickling the ivories". I wonder if that's because "tinkling" is most strongly associated with the slang for using the toilet.

Marc Leavitt said...

I have never heard anyone talk about tinkling the ivories. The phrase I have always heard is "tickling" the ivories.
Whatever searches may discover, I suspect this is an eggcorn. The "tinkling" version calls up an unpleasant image of someone performing an obscene and socially-unacceptable method of elimination.

John Cowan said...

In the U.S. too, tinkle means 'pee', and it's childish, unlike pee, which used to be childish but has now gone upmarket, especially among women who avoid piss. So I'd expect tinkle the ivories to be essentially unknown in the U.S. (I myself have never heard it).

Stan said...

I've heard both, usually tickle, and tickle is what I would incline towards if I ever had reason to use the phrase. (As a pianist, I never did.)

Like Anonymous before me, I associate tinkle with urination. Not from usage, but because the bathroom I used throughout childhood had a light-hearted picture with the line: "If you sprinkle when you tinkle, be sweet and wipe the seat."

Marc Leavitt said...

I just bought your latest, so I'm a member of the club. Noah Webster preferred 'gray,' but I've a;ways spelled it 'grey,' largely out of personal preference.

Regarding 'tickling,' versus 'tinkling.'; It's always been 'tickling the ivories,' - at least in the northeastern US. The latter construct brings up an image of a piano player performing an unsociable act.

J. Thomas McAlister said...

Here's a Google N-Gram Comparison of the phrases: "tickle" seems much more common in the written form.

DC said...

Thanks for the n-gram. Very interesting.

Anonymous said...

I'd tickle the ivories but have a tinkle on the joanna.