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Wordplay: Tittle-ating jottings from the Bible

Wordplay is a regular column by editor and language writer James Harbeck in which he tastes and plays with English words and usages.

The King James Version of the Bible gives us two English words that usually travel together: jot and tittle. We find them in Matthew 5:18: “For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.”

These are two titillating words worth jotting down, especially if you’re the type type. Jot is an English rendition of the Greek iota, ἰῶτα, as in “not one iota of sense.” Iota, as I think you know, is the name of the smallest letter in the Greek alphabet: ι. But the law of which Jesus was speaking in the quote was not written in Greek. It was written in Hebrew. The smallest letter in Hebrew is called yod, and looks like the image on the left.

Yod, iota: is the similarity of name a coincidence? Of course not; they’re both descended from the Phoenician letter yodh, which, in turn, was probably descended from a picture of a hand. The Greek iota became the Latin I, which, in turn, over the centuries split into two letters, i and j. (Just incidentally, in German j is called jot, and in Spanish and Portuguese it’s jota, all from iota.) The dot on top appeared in the medieval era to make it stand out among all the other vertical strokes in the calligraphy, so you could more easily read, for instance, minimi (“the smallest”). (more…)