Release notes: Titan and the titch

By Matthew Bladen, OED Senior Editor

The Titan

When I’m asked what I do for a living, one of the commonest follow-up questions is ‘do you have a particular specialism?”’ The answer is no: OED revision editors are generalists dealing with words of all kinds, from those in everyone’s working vocabulary to the most recondite and obscure technical terms. However, we do of course all have our own interests, and it is always fun when an entry aligns with a pet subject or a secret passion.

Another common follow-up question is “Do you have to have an English degree to work there?”, and the answer is, again, no: I actually read History at university, and specialized in Ancient History, so I was particularly pleased when I learned that I would be revising Titan n.1. When I read through the entry, however, I was surprised to find that the New English Dictionary‘s earliest evidence in the sense I was most familiar with (a member of the elder generation of Greek gods) actually referred to a particular individual going by the name ‘Titan’: ‘the ancestor of the Titans’, as NED put it. I considered myself reasonably familiar with classical mythology, but I had never heard of this character, and everything I’d ever read on the subject stated that the Titans were the children of Uranus and Gaia – no place for such an ‘ancestor’ in this genealogy. So what was going on here? Was it just that the NED editors had felt obliged to frame their definition so as to account for their earliest evidence for this sense, a quotation from Paradise Lost in which ‘Titan’ clearly did refer to a single mythical individual, or was there more to it? Who was Titan the Titan?

In the course of our research, an earlier quotation (from the late 16th century) had been found which referred to Titan as a person, so it appeared that this was indeed a distinct sense, but it didn’t tally with any account of Greek myth that I knew. Hesiod, the earliest surviving source to give an account of the Titans, names twelve, including Hyperion (father of Helios, the sun god) and Iapetus (father of Atlas and Prometheus), as well as Cronus and Rhea, the parents of Zeus and other ‘Olympian’ gods, but doesn’t call any of them by the name ‘Titan’. All the reference works I had to hand mentioned only the names used by Hesiod, if they named the Titans at all. However, NED’s etymology for Titan provided one clue: the account in which Titan was a person also had Titan as the elder, and only, brother of Cronus.

Armed with this information, I went trawling through our research databases, and by following references and allusions I was able to take this version of Greek myth back as far as the early Christian author Lactantius (c. AD 240-c. AD 320). Lactantius in turn was quoting from a lost prose work by the early Latin poet Ennius, which was itself based on, and named after, a lost fictional work by Euhemerus of Messene, a Greek author of the late fourth century BC. Euhemerus described a visit to an island in the Indian Ocean called Panchaea, on which he claimed to have found a golden pillar on which was inscribed the true history of Uranus, Cronus, and Zeus: mortal rulers whose great and beneficent deeds led to their subjects worshipping them as gods and which were preserved in distorted and inaccurate form by the Greeks as myth. In Euhemerus’s account, as far as we can make out from references to it in later authors, Titan was the elder son of Uranus, who permitted his younger brother Cronus to accede to their father’s throne on the condition that his own family, rather than that of Cronus, would then succeed Cronus. The mythical war between the Titans and the Olympians led by Zeus is thus explained as the memory of a historical conflict between the descendants of Titan and those of Cronus.

Euhemerus’s aims in writing such a radically revisionist account are unclear, although one possibility is that he sought to justify the growing contemporary tendency for living monarchs to receive divine honours: like his reimagined Uranus, Cronus, and Zeus, it could be argued, rulers such as Ptolemy and Cassander, and especially Alexander the Great, earned the right to be regarded as gods through their generous benefactions. However, his account could also be viewed as an attempt to undermine faith in the Greek gods, and this is certainly how Lactantius used the version that he found in Ennius. Nevertheless, the Greek myths continued to be told even when the audience became Christian, and this had the ironic effect of mythologizing the human figure of Titan, as the rationalized, euhemeristic account of the conflict between Titan and Cronus was merged with the traditional mythical one. In this merged version of the story, Titan’s bargain with Cronus over the kingship is what compels Cronus to eat his own newborn children, since otherwise they may challenge Titan’s descendants for the kingship.

This version of the myth was told and retold for hundreds of years, and Paradise Lost, contrary to what I originally supposed, is squarely in the mainstream tradition. However, as you can see from the quotation evidence, it becomes progressively more difficult to find references to the individual called Titan after the mid-eighteenth century, and nowadays he appears only in scholarly discussion of the classical literature in which he is mentioned. So why have we forgotten about Titan the Titan? My tentative guess is that at some point mythology became ‘reclassicized’: reference works, instead of retelling the tradition in its broadest and most anonymous form, opted to return to particular sources, such as Hesiod, for their information, and the material found in authors such as Lactantius became the purview of specialists. In a way, it marks the final end of classical myth as a living tradition, passed down from author to author directly. So while the detective work involved in revising this sense was intellectually very enjoyable, I can’t help but feel vaguely saddened by what I’ve uncovered.

The Titch

In the same set of words as Titan are titch and titchy. Revising the definitions of these words was straightforward enough; the fun came in investigating their origin. Your first impression, like mine, may be that titchy is a fairly old word, of the same ilk as teeny and tiny, but this is very far from the truth. Titchy is derived from titch, and titch has an amazing history…

In the late 1860s and early 1870s, a widely publicized series of court cases revolved around the claim of a butcher from Wagga Wagga, Australia, to be the long-lost heir to a baronetcy and associated estate. The claimant petitioned to have the current tenant of the estate ejected, and lost when his case for being the long-lost heir collapsed. He was tried for perjury, raised large sums from the general public for his defence, and lost again. When he was released from prison in 1884, he embarked on a nationwide tour of music halls and circuses, went to the United States, came back penniless, and eventually died in 1898 in poverty and relative obscurity. He is usually supposed to have been one Arthur Orton, but to his dying day, he claimed that he was Sir Roger Tichborne. So is he the original ‘tich’? Well, no: at the height of his fame, far from being a small man, he was very overweight.

However, such was the Tichborne Claimant’s notoriety that pictures of him were in every newspaper, and enterprising music-hall stars could trade on a passing similarity. One such ‘Young Tichborne’ is mentioned in the Era (a newspaper largely devoted to theatrical notices) in 1874, the year that the Claimant was sentenced to two sequential seven-year terms in prison. Another ‘Young Tichborne’, a child performer with the real name of Harry Relph, is recorded in 1881, but in 1884 he changed his stage name to ‘Little Tich’—and he really was little, standing only 4 feet 6 inches on his feet. In his shoes, however, he could stand much taller: he was a double-jointed acrobat who could tiptoe on shoes that were 28 inches long. One account has it that he was nicknamed ‘Young Tichborne’ as a child because, like the Tichborne Claimant, he was overweight, but as Little Tich he became one of the most celebrated music-hall performers of all time, and inadvertently enriched the English language in so doing.

Every word has its own story: some are relatively straightforward, but many turn out to have unexpected origins, or strange uses that lead the curious editor down unexplored paths. When I’m asked what I do for a living, and I tell them, people usually say “oh, that must be interesting!” I’ve never found reason to disagree.