The Century-Long Journey of “Ass over Tea Kettle”
Recently my good friend and New York Times bestselling author Robison Wells had a minor yet painful biking accident that yielded an interesting word-nerd question.
In light of my recent bike crash, I’ve been inspecting the phrase “going ass over teakettle” and I can find the earliest usages of a variant (Lippincott’s Magazine, October 1907 “heels over teakettle”) and the earliest usage of the specific phrase (Pagany, volume 3, 1932 “ass over teakettle”), but I can’t find any etymology for why a teakettle was brought into the conversation. Word nerds help me. Annette Lyon, consult your OED.
Naturally, like any self-respecting word nerd, I had to oblige. Below are my findings.
Caveat: I am not a professional linguist or researcher. I’m a hobbyist word nerd, though I’m also the child of a bona fide Ph.D. linguistics professor (now retired). So take my findings with whatever size grain of salt you wish.
Interestingly, with my OED on CD (yes, it’s old, but I don’t have an online subscription) doesn’t turn up any of the instances that Robison found, no matter what I searched for. Neither did a Google Ngram search.
Fair warning for word nerds: Google’s Ngram viewer a powerful, helpful tool, especially for historical fiction writers like me, who want to be sure that when their characters say “cookie,” that word really was used in 1887 in that part of the world. But the Ngram viewer is also one of the best toys in existence. You can easily lose hours messing around with it.
Ass over Tea Kettle
I discovered several variations on the phrase. I’m sure this is not a comprehensive list, but it’s enough for our purposes.
Variations in the Phrase
As you might expect, ASS over teakettle is more common in the US, while ARSE over teakettle is more common in the UK.
But those aren’t the only options for the first word in the phrase. Oh, no. Sometimes the first word is HEAD, likely borrowed from the common phrase head over heels.
But far more often than head, the first word is TIP/TIPS or TIT/TITS over teakettle.
Yet another difference is whether the noun at the end of the phrase is two words, a hyphenated word, or a single word: TEA KETTLE vs. TEA-KETTLE vs. TEAKETTLE. I found plenty of examples of all three.
If it’s not a teakettle, it’s likely a TAIL.
Trying to search every possible variation is a challenge best saved for my mathematician daughter, but I did my best.
Again, my primary resources were the Oxford English Dictionary on CD and the Google Ngram viewer, which searches the vast collection in Google Books and spits out graphs with usage across time.
1922: ARSE OVER TIP—Earliest Usage
I was surprised that the phrase wasn’t much older. I expected it to go back to Dickens and the late 1800s.
This version uses the mildly crude ARSE but the innocent TIP, meaning one’s head.
Some say that TIP is important to explain how someone was falling. If someone falls on his arse, that would look like the classic slip on a banana peel, where your feet slip out from under you and land on your backside against pavement.
(Or onto the ice, as happened to me during the winter of 1986–7 when I was trying to make up tricks and jumps without knowing what I was doing. It hurt for weeks.)
1924 — Heels over Tea Kettle
This is the first instance I could find of this version, which is the one Robison found, only his dated back to 1907. It’s the same general idea: heels going up and over in a flip rather than flat backward on your behind.
1928 — The Spelling Comes to America
This is the year that the phrase shows up as ASS OVER TIP.
Go, ’Murca! Way to be classy!
1936—The True Crudeness Begins
In American English, we start seeing TIT or the plural TITS, in the phrase, giving us ASS OVER TITS.
This version is clearly replaces TIP with something crude toward women, and it likely took hold because ten-year-old boys are the same across all centuries.
(Sorry for this post, Dad. I’m even sorrier that the crudeness showed up the year your were born.)
1953 — ARSE OVER TEA KETTLE
We can credit the classy Brits and their afternoon tea for bringing culture back to the phrase by replacing TIP with TEA KETTLE.
Any instances of language change in print generally means that the same thing was being spoken before it entered print. It’s entirely likely that ASS OVER TITS had made its way to England, and this version was their way of softening it, like we do with HECK and DANG today.
That still leaves us with ARSE, but then, the phrase began with that word, so perhaps it wasn’t particularly shocking to a 1953 community?
1954 — ARSE OVER TIT
I was entirely unsurprised to see this. Of course ASS OVER TIT would come to England via the States.
Then of course British speakers would change it to ARSE over ASS. The transfer was inevitable even without the internet. As mentioned above, it’s likely that this was used in speech for years before it showed up in print.
Seeing as how this version and the one before are just one year apart in print, there’s a decent chance that they entered the spoken lexicon at the same time, or perhaps in the opposite order.
Interestingly, this new version is a mash-up of ARSE OVER TIP (1922) and ASS OVER TITS(1936).
By this point, sometimes the whole phrase gets hyphens: ARSE-OVER-TIT
1961 — ASS OVER TEA KETTLE
This was the first instance of the exact phrase that I could find, which is so bizarre to me. 1962 is practically yesterday, linguistically speaking. This one can be found on both sides of the Atlantic.
As technology and travel increased interaction between the US and UK, Americans might have borrowed the TEA KETTLE part from their UK friends. Seems plausible to me, seeing as how tea consumption per capita in England is #1 in the world, while US tea consumption is way down at #35.
One way to sanitize the phrase is A OVER T or — and I’m guessing this one is super modern, a result of texting language — AOT.
Searching for either of those proved virtually impossible for my skills, as those combinations of letters show up in millions of pages without actually meaning ASS OVER TEA KETTLE.
So, Robison, dear friend, there you go!
The phrase likely began in England as HEAD (or ARSE) OVER TIP, morphed into the rather crude ARSE OVER TITS, got slightly sanitized with the tea kettle and eventually settled in to become the modern ASS OVER TEA KETTLE.
Here’s hoping you DON’T have another biking accident, AOT or otherwise!
Annette Lyon is a USA Today bestselling author, Whitney Award winner and League of Utah Writers winner of several publication awards, including the Silver Quill. She’s won Utah’s Best of State medal for fiction eight times. When she’s not writing or eating chocolate, she’s typically knitting while binge-watching Gilmore Girls. She has four kids, one grandchild, and a Siamese flame-tipped cat with an attitude. Check out her grammar and usage guide here or her most recent, award-winning novel, about World War II and the Winter War, The Girl in Gray, available in ebook, paperback, and audio.