Hoity-toity is a very punchy way to dismiss someone as “arrogant” or “snooty.” But what’s so “superior” about hoity and toity?
Hoity-toity appears in the written record in the 17th century, but back then, the word wasn’t so high and mighty. According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), hoity-toity first referred to “riotous or giddy behavior.” They cite Roger L’Estrange’s 1668 translation of The Visions of Quevedo by Spanish satirical poet, Francisco de Quevedo:
The Widdows I observ’d that were marching off, with the marque out of their mouths, were hugely concern’d to be thought Young, and still talking of Masques, Balls, Fiddles, Treats; Chanting and Iigging to every tune they heard, and all upon the Hoyty-Toyty like mad wenches of fifteen.
The phrase “Hoyty-toyty like the mad wenches of fifteen” provides an important etymological clue. While the ultimate origin of the word is unclear, the first part of hoity-toity may come from an obsolete dialectical verb, hoit, notably defined by English philologist Robert Nares as “to indulge in riotous and noisy mirth”—or as the OED offers, “to act the hoyden.”
A hoyden is an old term for a “boisterous girl,” although it was earlier applied (Thomas Nashe, 1593) to a “rude or boorish man.” Hoyden might come from the Dutch heiden, “a rustic and uncultured person,” with a possible relationship to the English heathen.
The word hoit often appeared as a noun or adjective hoiting, which could have been playfully reduced to hoity, further colored by with the rhyming reduplication of toity (cf. easy-peasy, teeny-weenie, razzle-dazzle).
In the late 1700s and early 1800s, hoity-toity start evolving from “frolicsome” to “huffy.” The behavioral connection is tricky. Perhaps someone acting overly giddy could be seen as pretending, hence putting on airs? Did the word’s original association with teenagers, and their stereotypical petulance, lead to “acting in an affected or supercilious manner”? Or did speakers just associate hoity with words like high and haughty? The OED does find a variant, the interjection highty-tighty in 1699, “expressing contemptuous surprise or annoyance,” though also a “flighty” young person, especially a girl.
And philologist Ernest Weekley suggested hoity-toity could allude to high-up tight ropes, so “self-important” are the hoity-toity, but this explanation seems a bit hoity-toity—etymologically that is, a touch too playful.