Daily Archives: April 7, 2010


Hmmm… is this fee-fi-fo-fum as said be a teetotaller on a teeter-totter? Or perhaps a tot of tea (trickling to tummy) taken by a toe-tapper singing along with, say, Rossini? I wouldn’t bet on it. However, many people would bet on it – a teetotum, that is, not the etymological misconjecture. A teetotum is a top often used for gambling, you see – a typically square top with a spindle in the middle, with a letter written on each side.

Some readers are now thinking, “Oh, a dreidel!” And in fact it’s the same thing, except that on a teetotum the letters are not the Hebrew nun, gimel, heh, and shin but the Latin A, D, N, and T. But they stand for the same things, basically. No, not nes gadol haya sham, “a great miracle happened there”; I mean the gambling use. A dreidel’s letters can be read as standing for Yiddish nite, halb, gants, and shteln, “nothing”, “half”, “all”, and “put” (compare German nichts, halb, ganz, stellen), while the letters on a teetotum stand for aufer, depone, nihil, and totum – “take”, “put”, “nothing”, and “all”. The idea being that everyone playing antes up and then each spins the top. Depending on how it falls, you do nothing (nite/nihil), take half the pot (halb/aufer – with a teetotum it could be some other specified amount, such as one coin), take it all (gants/totum), or put another coin in (shteln/depone). (Other versions can have more sides and more possible moves, but I’m not inclined to tout ’em.)

So how did this spinning object get such a tapping word? From what you want to come up when you spin: T – totum. (It was formerly called just a totum, which I suppose would make the spindle a totum pole, but I can’t assert that as a general fact.) This is very similar to how teetotal was formed: from total abstinence with a capital T, i.e., T-total abstinence. But I doubt the two tee words make good company: if my money is turning on a teetotum, I’m likely to turn to a tot of rum or other tipple when the top is teetering.

As the word turns, so turn coincidences, by the way – Teetotum is also the name of a hotel in Tulum, on the Mayan Riviera, near some Mayan ruins, and just about 250 km across the Yucatán Peninsula from Chicxulub (recently tasted here), where a large meteor hit our spinning planet, putting something and in consequence taking something: leaving nothing for the dinosaurs but all for humans. A great miracle happened there indeed…

Thanks to Margaret Gibbs for suggesting teetotum, which she saw in the Telegraph crossword.