A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

In Thoreau's Walden, what are "tit-men"?

November 8, 1996

Dear Cecil:

At one point in Walden, Henry David Thoreau, having grown bored with making the reader feel grubbily materialistic if he cannot carry all of his belongings on his back, moves on to rub the reader's nose in his puny intellectual attainments: "I confess I do not make a very broad distinction between the illiterateness of my townsman who cannot read at all, and the illiterateness of him who has learned to read only what is for children and feeble intellects. We should be as good as the worthies of antiquity, but partly by first knowing how good they were. We are a race of tit-men, and soar but little higher in our intellectual flights than the columns of the daily paper."

Assuming Hank Dave was not channeling Russ Meyer or Howard Stern, what the devil did he mean by "tit-men"? The context suggests he meant men preoccupied by life's inessentials — souls who lie in the gutter but fail to look up at the stars, or some such. Maybe he's comparing us with birds. But as I can't find the phrase in any old dictionaries I can't be sure. Would you be good enough to shine the refulgent beacon of your nonesuch intelligence upon this umbrageous niche of Thoreauvia?

Cecil replies:

Oh, David, I love it when you talk dirty like that. This is a topic I am happy to decrepusculate. I will even forgive Henry D.'s slighting reference to "the columns of the daily paper." Clearly he foresaw even then that truly mind-expanding journalism would be carried only in weeklies.

The reason you couldn't find "tit-men" in any old dictionaries is that you can't use just any old dictionary. For industrial-strength knowledge you want the Oxford English Dictionary, which tells us that a "titman" is "the smallest pig, etc. of a litter; hence, a man who is stunted physically or mentally; a dwarf, a 'croot.'"

So now you know. A tit-man (titman, whatever) is a croot. The phrase "soar but little higher" inclines one to think that Thoreau is also making a punning allusion to a similarly named species of bird.

Reminds me of a story. Two mice are in an English music hall watching a chorus line. "Lovely legs, haven't they?" says the first mouse. "Oh, I don't know," says the other. "I'm a titmouse myself."

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