Where Did the Name Teeter-Totter Come From?

The name teeter-totter is derived from the English verb “teeter,” which means to sway or totter, and the noun “totter.” A teeter-totter consists of two platforms that alternate the movement of children so they can stay balanced.

Teeter-totters, also known as seesaws, are a staple of childhood play. They’re found in nearly every playground in the world and have been a part of playtime for generations. But where did the word “teeter-totter” come from? Let’s look at the etymological origins of this popular playground equipment.

So, where did the word teeter-totter come from? The first known use of the word “teeter-totter” dates to 1789 when it was used in a book called “The Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe.” In the book, Crusoe uses the word to describe a type of seesaw he observed on a ship. It’s possible that the word was derived from an older Scandinavian word, “tautra,” which means “beam.” It’s also possible that the word is a corruption of the French word “tirer-taut,” which means “to pull tight.” By the early 1800s, the word had made its way into common usage in both Britain and America. Today, the word “teeter-totter” is used mostly in North America, while the rest of the English-speaking world uses the term “seesaw.”

Do you want to learn more about a teeter-totter and how it came to be? Read on to find out everything you need to know.

What Is a Teeter-Totter?

Before we start exploring the origins of the word “teeter-totter,” let’s take a quick look at what this piece of playground equipment is. A teeter-totter is a beam that is balanced in the middle, with two seats attached to either end.

When someone sits on one end of the beam, the other person sitting on the other end will be lifted into the air. Teeter-totters can be made of different materials, but they are typically made of wood or metal.

Traditional teeter-totters were usually around 10 feet long, but today, you can find teeter-totters of different sizes. Some are even made for adults!

The History of Teeter-Totters

Teeter-totters have been around for centuries. The first known use of the word “teeter-totter” dates to 1789, but it’s likely that teeter-totters were being used long before that.

The first teeter-totters were probably just logs or beams balanced in the middle. These early teeter-totters didn’t have seats attached to them – people would sit on one end of the log or beam, and someone else would sit on the other end.

Eventually, people started attaching seats to teeter-totters, which made them more comfortable to use. These early teeter-totters were usually made from wood, but today, you can find teeter-totters made of different materials, like metal or plastic.

Teeter-totters were originally used as a form of transportation. In some cultures, people would use teeter-totters to move heavy objects from one place to another.

Teenagers having fun at the see saw.
Teeter-totters have primarily been used as a form of entertainment.

For example, in ancient Egypt, there were records of people using teeter-totters to move large stones used to build pyramids. In China, there are records of people using teeter-totters to move carts full of goods.

Teeter-totters have primarily been used as a form of entertainment. In medieval Europe, people used teeter-totters as a carnival game.

Players would sit on one end of the teeter-totter, and someone else would sit on the other end. The goal was to see who could stay on the teeter-totter the longest without falling off.

Teeter-totters were also used as a form of torture in some cultures. In ancient Rome, people would tie criminals to a teeter-totter and make them balance there for hours or even days.

The criminals would eventually become so dehydrated and exhausted that they would fall off the teeter-totter and die. Teeter-totters were also used as a form of execution in some cultures.

In Japan, people would tie criminals to a teeter-totter and make them balance there until they eventually died of thirst or exhaustion.

How Did the Word “Teeter-Totter” Come to Be?

The word “teeter-totter” first appeared in print in 1789, but it’s likely that people were using the term long before that.

There are a few theories about how the word “teeter-totter” originated. One theory is that the word comes from the Dutch word “tuitertoren,” which means “swinging tower.”

Wooden teeter totter/=.
The word “teeter-totter” first appeared in print in 1789.

It’s possible that the Dutch word “tuitertoren” was used to describe teeter-totters in the 17th century and eventually made its way to England.

Another theory is that the word “teeter-totter” comes from the Latin word “titulus,” which means “beam.” It’s possible that the Latin word “titulus” was used to describe teeter-totters in the 18th century, and that the word eventually made its way to England.

Whatever the origin of the word “teeter-totter,” it’s clear that teeter-totters have been around for centuries and are here to stay!

Teetering, Tilting, and Trembling

A teeter is closely related to a titter which is believed to come from an Old Norse word titra, meaning to tremble.

The Oxford English Dictionary connects teeter with the Dutch word tuitertoren, a type of swing used in seventeenth-century Europe. It also suggests a connection with the Latin titulus, a beam or crossbar.

Kid at the teeter totter.
The word totter, meaning to stagger or waver, is derived from an Old Norse word totra, meaning to shake.

The earliest use of teeter in print found by the OED is from work called The Young Man’s Recreation by J. McGregor, published in 1676:

And when the teeter’s set in motion,

The sportsman takes his place upon;

Both feet must steady be, and even,

Lest down, he tumbles presently.

The word totter, meaning to stagger or waver, is derived from an Old Norse word totra, meaning to shake. The OED’s earliest citation for totter used in the context of a person staggering is from around the same time as McGregor’s book:

Nor yet my feet can firmly stand;

But still, they totter to and from.

The first use of totter in print in connection with a teeter-totter is found in The Life and Adventures of Sir Launfal, by James Russell Lowell, published in 1848:

And many a time, they jounced him up and down

On the old wooden teeter-totter in the barn.

The word teeter-totter was first recorded in print in 1789, though it was probably used informally before that. The OED suggests that it may be a dialectical variant of titter-totter.

Is a Teeter-Totter Different from a Seesaw?

The words “teeter-totter” and “seesaw” are often used interchangeably, but there is a slight difference between the two.

A teeter-totter is a type of lever, which means it has a fulcrum in the middle. A seesaw is a type of inclined plane, which means it doesn’t have a fulcrum in the middle.

This difference might not seem like much, but it greatly affects how the two devices work.

A teeter-totter is balanced in the middle, which means that if someone sits on one end, the other person must sit on the tip of the opposite end for the teeter-totter to work.

Brother and sister playing at the see saw.
A teeter-totter is a type of lever, which means it has a fulcrum in the middle.

On the other hand, a seesaw doesn’t have to be balanced in the middle. If someone sits on one end of a seesaw, the other person can sit anywhere on the opposite end, and the seesaw will still work.

So, if you’re ever wondering whether you’re on a teeter-totter or a seesaw, remember: if it’s balanced in the middle, it’s a teeter-totter. If it’s not balanced in the middle, it’s a seesaw!

Are Teeter-Totters Safe?

Teeter-totters are generally safe if used properly, but there have been some accidents associated with them in different parts of the world.

In 2001, a four-year-old girl in Australia was playing on a teeter-totter when the teeter-totter suddenly broke, and she fell to the ground.

The girl suffered a severe head injury and died two days later. In 2006, a six-year-old boy in the United States was playing on a teeter-totter when he fell off and hit his head on the ground.

The boy suffered a serious brain injury and died several weeks later. While these accidents are tragic, they’re also rare.

A wooden teeter totter with a tire.
Teeter-totters are generally safe if used properly.

Most people who use teeter-totters don’t get hurt, and most teeter-totter accidents are minor. If you’re going to use a teeter-totter, be sure to use it safely and always follow the manufacturer’s instructions.

Children playing on a teeter-totter must be closely supervised by an adult. Never allow children to play on a teeter-totter unsupervised because they may be tempted to try dangerous moves that could hurt them.

How Much Does a Teeter-Totter Cost?

Teeter-totters can be found for various prices, depending on the size, material, and features.

Smaller teeter-totters designed for home use can cost as little as $50, while larger commercial teeter-totters can cost upwards of $1,000.

Some teeter-totters come with unique features like seats or canopies, which can increase the price. When choosing a teeter-totter, it’s essential to pick one that’s the right size and has the right features for your needs.

A blue teeter totter outdoor.
Teeter-totters can be found for various prices, depending on the size, material, and features.

Don’t be afraid to spend a little extra to get a teeter-totter that’s high quality and will be safe and fun to use.

Summary

Though its exact origins are unknown, the teeter-totter has been a part of human culture for centuries. What started as a training tool for young soldiers has evolved into a beloved childhood toy enjoyed by kids worldwide.

The next time you’re at the park or playground, take a moment to appreciate this simple yet fascinating piece of history. We hope you enjoyed learning a little bit about the teeter-totter. Thanks for reading!

Last update on 2023-02-04 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

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