What word does jot go with?

There are two most likely answers, and which one you choose will say a little something about your literary disposition.

The older of the two, and the one more restricted to literary and Biblical references now, is tittle. The original vector for it in English is Matthew 5:18 in the King James Bible: “Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.” These days people will speak of every jot and tittle or not a jot or tittle, but most of them probably don’t know one iota of the literal reference. Which I will get to in a moment.

The newer travelling companion of jot, and since the 1970s the more common one (see this Google ngram), is down. This is not jot the noun now; this is jot the verb. You don’t have to jot things down; you can jot a few notes, for instance. But you almost always do jot things down (or jot down things) – notes, thoughts, things, ideas.

As the Google ngram will show you, jot is well past its heyday as a noun, but is gradually increasing as a verb (after a slight slump between the ’40s and the ’70s). Well, why not? It’s a nice, quick word, something you really could jot down. And there’s such a nice little tight chewiness to the word – it makes me think of chewing a flaxseed between my incisors (something I do with some frequency, as I like multigrain bread for my morning toast). It has nice tastes of jut, jet, jitney, and perhaps jute and jaw. Maybe even chit and chutney.

Are the noun and the verb related, really? After all, the noun means a small thing, while the verb means to write quickly and sketchily. But yes, the verb – which showed up in English two centuries after the noun – is based on the noun, from the idea of making quick small marks. You know, jots and tittles. I suppose they could have said tittle it down instead of jot it down, but that wouldn’t have been as short – though it might have been more titillating.

And whence comes this word in the first place? Really a translation failure. You know how when you get a computer to translate some text, if it doesn’t know a translation for a word it just keeps it as it is? Well, William Tyndale, in making his 1526 translation of the Bible (on which the King James Bible was heavily based), encountered the word iota and, in spite of the fact that he encountered it in the Greek (ἰῶτα) and had every reason to know the word and know what it was intending to convey, decided simply to transliterate it into English as iott (the letter j was not an independent letter yet; it was just an alternate form of i, and represented sometimes a vowel and sometimes a consonant – just as u and v were two shapes of a similarly bivalent letter).

Perhaps he assumed his readers would also have some knowledge of Greek. How much knowledge? The alphabet would be enough. You see, iota is the name of the smallest letter in the Greek alphabet: ι. In the Latin alphabet it became i; they started to jot a dot atop it just to make it stand out a little more. A little more? A tittle more – a tittle is any teeny little mark such as an accent or dot.

And both jot and tittle are still with us – neither has passed away yet. But now that I’ve jotted down this disquisition, my daily duty is at least fulfilled.