dit, dit(i)e and ditee (noun)
The various dictionary entries give a sense of the overlap between these terms, and also the range of general and specific meanings they can communicate. The Oxford English Dictionary separates dite (meaning ‘something said or put in writing’ or ‘a poem or song’) from ditty (meaning ‘lyrics for singing’, ‘birdsong’ and ‘a poem’). The Middle English Dictionary likewise has dit (‘a poem’) and dite (‘literary composition’, ‘poem, song’). Both words are borrowed into English from French. The Dictionnaire du Moyen Français has dit (meaning both ‘thing said/written’ and ‘a poem’) and dité or ditié (meaning both ‘a poem’ and also ‘the text of a song as opposed to its music’); the Anglo-Norman Dictionary likewise has both dit (‘saying’, ‘tale’) and dit(i)é (‘poem’, ‘story’, ‘writing’, ‘song’). The trilingual Magnus Cato in the Vernon manuscript translates Latin carmen with dit in French and dite in English, showing their equivalence as terms for verse.
Chaucer doesn’t call his own works dites, though the Eagle in the House of Fame acknowledges that Chaucer has made ‘bookys, songes, dytees, / In ryme or elles in cadence’ in praise of Love and lovers. The Eagle presents Chaucer as the stereotype of the young love poet, and Gower uses exactly these terms (‘ditees…songes glade’) when Venus describes Chaucer’s youthful service at the end of the Confessio. I suspect that both Chaucer and Gower use ditee somewhat ironically and somewhat tautologically: generic terms to indicate the generic forms of juvenilia, from which Chaucer is moving on in the House of Fame. Continue reading