Language Corner

Of God and goodbyes

July 11, 2016
Photo: Wikimedia

Even the most unreligious among us invokes God more than we might think, especially when parting from another person. 

Take “goodbye,” for example. You might spell it “good-bye” or even “good-by,” but what you are telling someone is “may God be with you.” The Oxford English Dictionary traces it to the 16th century and says our current “goodbye” was formed partly by clipping or shortening “Godbewithyou,” where people speak hastily or in shorthand, and partly by compounding, the practice of combining two or more words into one. “God” may also have become “good” because it seemed to go with other expressions like “good morning” and “good night.” And we do like some consistency in our language.

If you bid someone “adieu,” you’re also invoking God, because that comes from the French word “dieu,” or “God.” Saying “adieu” is the same as saying “go with God.”

If you’re trying to get away from religious associations entirely, you can, of course, say “farewell,” shortened for “fare thee well.” These are among the oldest parting words in the English language; the OED traces the phrase to the late 14th century.

If it’s an informal goodbye, you might say “toodle-oo” or “toodles.” This is a Britishism, tracing to the early 20th century: The OED says it was first used in 1907 in the magazine Punch, though T.E. Lawrence used it in a letter in 1908. The linguistic origin of that one is a bit murkier, with many usage authorities saying it might derive from the sound of a car horn (though most car horns of that time sounded more like “ah-OOOgah” than “toodle”). “Toodle-oo” sounds suspiciously like the French “à tout à l’heure,” which means “hope to see you in a short while,” or, in other words, “goodbye.” There is some speculation it’s a possible source for “toodle-oo.”

Or if you want to be colloquial and silly, you could revert to the nursery and say “ta-ta,” which the OED traces to the early 19th century and may have been popularized by Dickens in The Pickwick Papers. (In the early 1940s, a BBC radio program brought us “TTFN,” or “Ta-ta for now.”) But be sure to emphasize the second syllable: “Ta-ta” with the emphasis on the first syllable means women’s breasts, though that’s also spelled “tata.”

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If you shortened “ta-ta” (the farewell, not the breasts) to just a single “ta,” you’re not saying goodbye at all, but “thank you,” at least in British-speaking countries—that word does not appear with that definition in most major American dictionaries. Of course, saying “ta” after a transaction can combine “thank you” and “goodbye” and save wear and tear on the vocal cords. The OED says “ta” is “an infantile form of ‘thank you’ ” that has entered colloquial, adult usage.

If you just shorten “goodbye” to “bye,” you may also be giving a pass. In sports, a team that gets a “bye” has either been given the privilege of advancing to the next round without playing, or, especially in football, is not scheduled to play even though others in its league are playing.

Goodbye to all that. Thank God!

Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at the New York Times, where she worked for twenty-five years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.