Friday, 20 November 2020

On the QT

I recently said to a colleague that I was asking them for an answer 'on the QT'; then stopped, and wondered where on earth that phrase had come from. I knew it was short for 'on the quiet', but why "QT"? Why not just "on the quiet"?

'When in danger, fear or doubt' on language, I turn to Michael Quinion, he of former World Wide Words fame, and a reader for OED. Sure enough, Michael had a solution for me: the earliest sighting in the wild is "from a British ballad of 1870, which contained the line 'Whatever I tell you is on the QT'" (1999), from a US etymologist, Robert Hendrickson (2008). However, Michael felt that, as this pointed to a song of the time, without providing the name of it, this origin was not concrete enough. Michael found an 1879 music hall song, "published in the Cambridge Jeffersonian of Ohio [, which ran] "My house-keeper, Mrs. Brown, Is the greatest saint in town, As tee-total as it’s possible to be, It’s only by her nose I know where my whiskey goes, She tipples on the strict Q. T." (1999).

This saying does have the sound of music hall about it. However, I was interested enough to go and dig into Hendrickson (2008), and found his original entry (see the accompanying image). This said:

"Q.T. A British broadside ballad (1870) contained the line 'Whatever I tell you is on the Q.T.' This is the first record of Q.T. for 'on the quiet, in confidence' recorded in English, but no one has established whether the broad-side's anonymous author was the first person to use the initials Q.T. to stand for quiet" (Hendrickson, 2000, p. 555; 2008, p. 686).

Hendrickson then goes on to say that the next evidence is in the 1891 "minstrel show" and song, "Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay". It is clear that Hendrickson does not have evidence for the 1870 roadside ballad. The same story is recorded in the revised and expanded edition (Hendrickson, 2000). I was unable to obtain a copy of Hendrickson's original 1997 edition, the one which Michael Quinion must have used. 

As an aside, while I was trawling, I found a similar sounding reference from 1786 in Hendrickson, as follows:

"on the qui vive. French sentries once shouted “Qui vive?” literally “who lives?” as a challenge to discover to which party the person challenged belonged—appropriate answers being [vive] “le roi [king],” “la France,” etc. Thus to be on the qui vive is to be watchful (like a sentry), to be on the alert for something. The expression is first recorded in English by Jonathan Swift in 1726" (Hendrickson, 2008, p. 617). [please note the Hendrickson does not tell us where, exactly that quote from Jonathan Swift lies, but that Bullard & McLaverty do, in their 2015 book: it arises in a letter from Swift to Pope and Gay, dated 15 October 1726]

I wonder if the qui vive elided, or was rhymed with quiet, expressed as QT, at some point? Hence "On the qui vive" became "on the Q.T."? An interesting idea.

Food for thought.



  • Bullard, P., & McLaverty, J. (Eds.) (2015). Jonathan Swift and the Eighteenth-Century Book. Cambridge University Press.
  • Hendrickson, R. (2000). The Facts on File Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins: Definitions and origins of more than 15,000 words and expressions (revised and expanded ed.). Checkmark Books.
  • Hendrickson, R. (2008). The Facts on File Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins: Definitions and origins of more than 15,000 words and expressions (4th ed.). Facts On File, Inc.
  • Quinion, M. (30 January 1999). On the QT.

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