Labour MP Harriet Harman sparked widespread discussion about the correct use of this word yesterday, when she accused the Daily Mail newspaper of publishing “titivating” pictures of young girls in bikinis. The word titivate (which can also be spelled tittivate) means ‘smarten up’, ‘put the finishing touches to’. Since it’s hard to see how putting on a bikini can be considered smartening up, Ms Harman must have confused it with the similar word titilate ‘excite’ or ‘stimulate’.
Despite having her error broadcast across the country and being harangued by Twitter pedants, Ms Harman can draw some comfort from the fact that the words are so commonly mistaken that the Oxford English Dictionary has a separate entry for titivate used as an error for titilate; the earliest occurrence is in a letter from Ezra Pound to James Joyce in 1915, referring to bedroom scenes where the audience can be ‘tittivated, eroticised’. It’s fortunate he added the ‘eroticised’, since otherwise Joyce might have taken it as a subtle hint to tidy his bedroom. Since the OED’s most recent example of this blunder dates to 1976, Ms Harman’s error may one day result in the dubious honour of having her linguistic infelicity enshrined in the pages of the OED.
It’s easy to see how Ms Harman confused two such similar-looking words. One way of avoiding falling into the same trap is to focus on their etymologies. Titillate is from Latin titillare ‘to tickle’, so that something that titillates you literally tickles you. The earliest spelling of titivate, tidivate, suggests that it derives from the adjective tidy, with a pseudo-Latin ending taken from words like cultivate.