MEANING OF TICKETY-BOO
Used predicatively, the old-fashioned informal British-English adjective tickety-boo means as it should be, correct, satisfactory.
The adjective in use—from Subdued Johnson just a piece of flotsam being buffeted around, by the parliamentary sketch writer John Crace, published in The Guardian (London and Manchester, England) of Monday 2nd November 2020:
Tory Brexiters hadn’t fought to close borders only to curtail every Englishman’s right to go into any pub they wanted to get Covid-19.
Just as long as the virus wasn’t caught from Johnny Foreigner then all was tickety-boo. You could die happy knowing the virus had spread from a Brit.
EARLIEST OCCURRENCES OF TICKETY-BOO
These are the first two occurrences of tickety-boo that I have found:
1-: From the review by Colin Summerford of Sarah’s Youth (London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1938), a novel by E. Œ. Somerville and Martin Ross—review published in The Observer (London, England) of Sunday 23rd October 1938; after quoting the beginning of the novel, Colin Summerford wrote:
So the story opens; and what follows is all tickety-boo. The natural force, the preternatural sparkle, of Somerville and Ross, neither fails nor flags.
2-: From Luke (London: William Heinemann, 1939), a novel by the English author Mary Noel Streatfeild (1895-1986):
It looked as if settling in Sealight ought to have turned out all right; Irene had fretted herself to a shadow in Penang, missing the kids; after all they had enough to get along on, seemed selfish looking for more when Irene wanted to go home. Things ought to have shaped right, Betty at school in the town and John coming home for his holidays—couldn’t have looked more tickety-boo if only Irene—blast it all what could she see in the fellow?
ORIGIN OF TICKETY-BOO: OBSCURE
The question of the origin of tickety-boo was raised very early, since the following is from the column Men and Affairs: A Scotsman’s Log, published in The Scotsman (Edinburgh, Midlothian, Scotland) of Wednesday 14th August 1940:
We are feeling slightly exhausted after a determined effort to find a decent home and family for a vagrant word. The word is “Tiggerty-Boo,” which a radio announcer the other day described as being familiar to every man in the Forces. As it was not at all familiar to us we made a preliminary investigation among our colleagues, who assured us (a) that the word was spelled, “Tickety-Boo,” (b) that it occurred in a dance song, (c) that it was of South African origin, (d) that it was the verbal equivalent to the state of mind described by raising the thumbs.
Armed with this information, we set about investigating the antecedents of the expression. Ringing up the Overseas Club, we asked to be put in touch with the nearest South African on the premises. There was no South African on the premises, and we were advised to make contact with the Victoria League. The Victoria League had no South Africans available either, but kindly volunteered to investigate. They confirmed our impression that the word meant “everything’s grand,” but could furnish no philological data.
Later on we rang up some musicians who provided us with the correct spelling of the expression, and informed us that the song “Tiggerty-Boo” was undoubtedly the most popular “number” of the day. At one Edinburgh dance hall they have reached the stage of releasing copies of the song from the roof during the playing of the “number.” These copies are seized as eagerly as Nazi propaganda leaflets.
In order that “Tiggerty-Boo” may look the world in the face we have fitted it out with a provisional, and we hope honourable, etymology. Until some benevolent philologist comes along with something better we offer it the following descent:
“Tiggerty-Boo” is a South African slang expression meaning “the situation leaves nothing to be desired.” It is a corruption of the words “Tickey” and “Tabu.” “Tickey” (cf. Chambers’ Dictionary) is the South African for “threepenny-piece.” Literally the expression signifies “threepenny-pieces are forbidden.” The word was first used by the military during the relief of Mafeking 1. To indicate their jubilation, the Authorities supplied each soldier with a gold sovereign in exchange for currency of lesser denominations. Hence the “tickey,” being withdrawn from circulation, was no longer acceptable and virtually forbidden. “Tiggerty-Boo” from this time onwards has been used by South African troops to indicate a state of high spirits.
1 Mafeking is the former name of the town of Mafikeng in South Africa. In 1899-1900, during the Second Boer War, a small British force commanded by Robert Stephenson Smyth Baden-Powell (1857-1941) was besieged in Mafeking for 217 days; the siege was finally lifted when a flying column of some 2,000 British soldiers, including many South African volunteers, relieved the town after fighting their way in.
There was indeed a song titled Tiggerty Boo. The Evening Despatch (Birmingham, Warwickshire, England) mentioned this title from Monday 29th July 1940 onwards. The song was described as—or subtitled—“Forces’ “Thumbs Up” Song” in the following list of new record releases, published in the Gloucestershire Echo (Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, England) of Friday 2nd August 1940:
“Air Battle Over English Channel,” by Charles Gardiner, B.B.C. Broadcaster; a Thrilling Record (Decca 12 inch) 2/6. “Battle Dress,” Regimental Marches (including Gloucesters), Columbia Record 3/-. “Tiggerty Boo,” Forces’ “Thumbs Up” Song, 1/6; Song 6d. Syd Tonge’s, Winchcombe St. Radio Service.
And the following is from Men and Affairs: A Scotsman’s Log, published in The Scotsman (Edinburgh, Midlothian, Scotland) of Saturday 24th August 1940:
Readers of this column may remember that a week or two ago we speculated on the origin of the expression “Tiggerty-Boo!” the name of one of the most popular dance tunes of the moment. In default of philological evidence, we advanced a possible etymology for which we were not inclined to take much credit. To-day we have received a copy of the song, kindly sent by the author, Captain A. W. Hallifax. Captain Hallifax tells us that he wrote the song for his men while in France. He has had the satisfaction of seeing its rousing influence spread all over the British Isles. The author writes that he has heard many explanations of the words advanced, but generously gives priority to our theory. We are grateful to him, but shall insist on withdrawing our hypothesis when a more authoritative one is advanced.
However, nothing seems to actually support the South African origin of tickety-boo. A different hypothesis occurs in the following from India’s Last Viceroy, an article by George E. Jones about Lord Mountbatten 2, published in The New York Times (New York City, N.Y.) of Sunday 22nd June 1947:
Lord Mountbatten is well known for the wide range of his interests. He designed a new type of warship bridge, has given his name to a shutter signaling device and has developed instruments used in radio communications aboard His Majesty’s ships. However, he will be no less well remembered for introducing the hitherto exclusively landlubber’s game of polo into the Royal Navy (he captained the first team, working out his strategy on a billiard table with balls for ponies) and for giving currency to the phrase, tickety- or tiggerty-boo (from the Hindustani teega), now standard Royal Navy parlance for “okay.”
2 Louis Francis Albert Victor Nicholas Mountbatten (1900-1979), 1st Earl Mountbatten of Burma, was a British admiral and administrator; he was the last Viceroy (1947) and first Governor General (1947-48) of India.
This led to the following, published in American Notes and Queries of September 1947—as quoted in the Oxford English Dictionary (2nd edition, 1989):
Lord Mountbatten, now Governor General of India, is credited in the New York Times Magazine (June 22, 1947, p. 45) with ‘giving currency’ to the phrase ‘tickety-boo’ (or ‘tiggerty-boo’). This Royal Navy term for ‘okay’ is derived from the Hindustani.
This is possibly why the Oxford English Dictionary (2nd edition, 1989) speculated that tickety-boo is “perhaps from Hindi ṭhīk hai, all right”.
This is what William Safire 3 wrote on the origin of tickety-boo in his column On Language, published in The New York Times (New York City, N.Y.) of Sunday 25th March 1990—after quoting American Notes and Queries of September 1947, he explained:
The Supplement to the Oxford English Dictionary, where the earliest citation is a 1939 use by the author Noel Streatfeild, labels the etymology “obscure,” but speculates, “Perhaps from Hindi ṭhik hai, ‘all right.’”
I wonder. This outmoded British colloquialism, meaning “in order, in good shape,” equivalent to the American hunky-dory or, as NASA engineers would now say, all systems go, seems to me (and to Webster’s New World etymologists) to come from the expression “That’s the ticket!”
That British expression may have been based on the American Colonial use of the word to mean “names of candidates on a list to be voted on.” In 1766, Benjamin Franklin’s daughter, Sarah Bache, wrote, “The old ticket forever!”
Thus, we are presented with a choice: either a Hindi root, picked up by the Royal Navy and transferred to Americans during or soon after World War II, or the Colonial Americanism ticket. (The American sense of “political list” was sent over to England to be used in “That’s the ticket!” and the subsequent, nonpolitical tickety-boo […] migrated to the United States.)
And William Safire concluded:
That […] is the closest I can get to the answer.
3 William Safire (William Lewis Safir – 1929-2009) was a U.S. author, columnist, journalist and presidential speechwriter.
As for me, I wonder whether tickety-boo may simply be a purely fanciful formation, comparable to words such as lallapaloosa, a noun denoting something outstandingly good of its kind.