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Published: 02 October 2021

By Andy Ross

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The ditty box

In a recent series of "The Repair Shop", a British television series that follows the restoration of much-cherished articles for members of the public, a writing slope was used as a "ditty box".

A ditty box is a sailor's chest in which to store personal belongings. Being on board ship where space is at a premium, ditty boxes are generally small and this particular writing slope, similar to the one in the picture on the left, would have been ideal to keep things that reminded its owner of home and family. But the name "ditty box" is strange, afetr all, a ditty is a short and simple song.

In the days of sail, canvas was readily available on-board ship. It was an easy matter to make small bags to hold kit and belongings - sailors had to be able to make and repair their own clothes as well as fix canvas sails and had to be able to sew - and these were called "ditty bags". The name then became attached to any receptacle that held personal items, hence "ditty box". 

So where did the word "ditty" come from? It cannot be linked to music because there is no logical reason for such receptacles to have a musical connection. (Ditty in the musical sense comes from the Latin "dictatum" meaning "something dictated".)

In India a length of cloth is often worn, tied around the waist and legs. This is the easily-recognisable "dhoti" and, it seems, the origin of the word "ditty". The dhoti gave its name to a type of calico, very thick and strong, and used as sail cloth, dhoti becoming "dutty" as in "dutty cloth". Finally "dutty" became "ditty" and was attached to "ditty bag" made from "dutty cloth" and from there it was a simple case of transferring it to "ditty box"!