Mind your language

From Covid to football, the rise in ‘upticks’

12 September 2020

9:00 AM

12 September 2020

9:00 AM

Political commentators love talking about the optics — the way something looks to voters. Just at the moment, though, everyone seems to be talking about upticks.

Usually it is to do with local increases in coronavirus cases. But my husband, not above reading the sports pages, found that Juventus was wondering whether Cristiano Ronaldo had brought ‘a big enough uptick in their revenues’.

It is an increase, then. But where does the figure of speech come from? Is it from a graph showing a blip like a V-shaped recovery, which resembles the sort of tick that goes in a box (for those with a tick-box mentality)? I think this idea is reinforced by that of sums ticking up like the meter in a taxi. Moreover, to a world once served by the ticker tape (bringing news to financial houses and the entrance halls of clubs), there entered in the 1980s the term tick meaning ‘the smallest amount by which prices are deemed to fluctuate’. In 1985, the National Westminster Bank explained that for ‘interest rate futures one tick is 0.01, 1 per cent of 1 per cent’.

The V-shaped tick appeared only in the 19th century as a development of tick meaning a quick light dry sound, as of a watch. John Aubrey tells of the Elizabethan antiquary Thomas Allen leaving his watch in the window alcove and his maid, hearing something in a case saying Tick, Tick, Tick, thinking that it was his devil or familiar.

This tick had first meant a light touch or pat, and a 15th-century dictionary gives the Latin equivalent as tactulus. The English word did not come from Latin, though, but from some Germanic origin, or from an onomatopoeic coinage. But to buy something on tick has no connection. There, tick is short for ticket, in the 17th century a note of hand or IOU. (IOU, by the way, a punning abbreviation for ‘I owe you’, was in use before 1618, when funny old Nicholas Breton noted it. It is, they tell me, legally enforceable.)

None of this has anything to do with the tick that lives on sheep or deer. That irritating creature, familiar to our forebears before the Conquest, is the oldest tick of all.

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