29.12.23 — Writing

An Appeal for a Better Spelling of T-Shirt

This morning I walked into my kitchen to find that my mother had put sticky notes on the two towels that were laid over the handle of the oven door. One read “hand towel” and the other “t‑towel”, as though the world would to come to an end should I dry my clean hands on the towel I had also dried a pot with.

I’m not here to moan about my poor mum’s towel obsession, or even the fact that it’s technically called a “tea towel”, however. The word “t‑towel” got me thinking about another word whose spelling has always got on my nerves: that of the humble t-shirt.

As I often do, I began wondering about the origins of the word “t‑shirt”, or it’s etymology if we’re being fancy. As I made myself a slice of toast, I pondered whether the name came from golf, as I’ve also seen these garments described as “tee shirts” or simply a “tee”. My theory was that the polos used by golfers were the ancestors of the modern “shirts for teeing”, hence “tee shirts”.

I was very wrong. It turns out that the origin of the word is much more simplistic: they’re “t‑shirts” because they are shaped like a capital letter “T”.

Realistically, I should have expected such bare-bones simplicity from a language with germanic roots. We British often like to laugh at the Americans for referring to autumn as “fall” (because leaf fall down), or their hyper-specificity in words like “eyeglasses”, but really English can be pretty simplistic when it comes to describing things.

Why use fancy words from Latin like “feline” when we can just say “like a cat” with “catlike”? Why say “assist” when you can use the more descriptive “give a hand”? Why say “noon” when we can explicitly express the concept of “middle of the day” with “midday”?

Anyway, back to t-shirts. My irk with this word comes from the combination of two features: the use of a hyphen (that dash “-” in the middle) with the use of a single letter (“t”).

The use of hyphens in English is pretty common. I write things like “know‑how” and “mind‑blowing” all the time and with great gusto. I’ve no problem with these examples because in my brain they make sense as they are balanced, both when written and spoken. The word “t‑shirt” feels very lopsided though: all the weight is in “shirt”. The poor “t” looks like it’s tagged on as an afterthought.

The use of a single letter is also nothing new to English: we have “a” and “I”, although the latter could spear a whole other rant about why we still insist on capitalising “I” despite the interesting history of why we do so in the first place – but I’ll leave that one for another time. For those interested, my second language of Spanish is also no stranger to single-letter words. The following five are all valid Spanish words: a, e, y, o, and u. They’ve essentially given all the vowels their own word, with “y” standing in for “i”.

This combination of this hyphen with a single letter also leads to my main gripe with this damn word: how the hell are we supposed to capitalise it? Is it “T‑Shirt” or “T‑shirt”? Or are we going with outright anarchy and capitalising it as “t‑Shirt”? We do capitalise iPhone like that, after all.

Technically, the word should always be spelled as “T‑shirt”, a nod to its origin. But I don’t like that as it seemingly puts the word on the same superior level as other proper nouns, or words that we spell with a capital letter: people, places, and gods. I mean, come on, it’s just a piece of clothing.

It’s therefore not surprising that the most common way of writing the word is now “t‑shirt”, devoid of any capitalisation. This is fine, until I have to write it a title.

I am equally completely confused by ‘title case’ as I am a fierce fan of it. For those not accustomed to the term, it’s like a third case after uppercase and lowercase, and it refers to the use of capital letters on most words within titles or headlines. For example, to title a song “Smells like teen spirit” just looks wrong, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is much better.

So what do we do when we’ve a hyphenated word in a title? Do I go with “Mind‑blowing” or “Mind‑Blowing”? As with title case in general, there’s no clear consensus, with many different style guides indicating one way or the other. I don’t think I’ve even decided: the titles of my over 600 blog posts are probably a haphazard mishmash of different capitalisation styles.

With our pesky “t-shirt”, this mess is even worse. Again, it should be “T‑shirt”, but that makes the word feel unbalanced in a whole other way than it normally does. Thus, after much agonising, I went with “T‑Shirt” for the title of this blog post. It’s my blog, so I’ll do what I want.

A flurry of linguistic ramblings aside, let’s get back to just that: the title of this blog post. “An appeal for a better spelling of t‑shirt” is just that, an appeal. I don’t have a proposal for how we could fix this mess, and I’m not even sure that the solution lies in changing its spelling. I only suggest a change of spelling because I believe that changing the word itself would be an easier feat than getting dozens of English-speaking communities and authorities to agree on a set of standard rules for its capitalisation.

Also, the word is just fucking ugly.

Obviously, I’m not holding out hope for a change in spelling of the word “t‑shirt”, even if English seems to change at breakneck speed. I’ll just engage in my usual habit of avoiding using the word whenever I can, and then begrudgingly spelling it as-is whenever I have to be specific.

As an interesting aside, Spanish uses the word “camiseta” to refer to a t-shirt, a word whose originals literally mean “small shirt”. English also has, as noted, the simple word “tee”. I don’t see this as a solution, though, as it has to share its meaning with the golf term when written and in speech could easily be confused with “tea”. Imagine saying “go and put a tee on”, the poor person wouldn’t know whether to change their clothes or start making a hot drink.

If you liked this rant of a blog post, be sure to let me know.