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Still more tats (and tattoos too)

Posted by Jan Freeman, keep until April September 1, 2008 01:28 PM

tweety.jpgSeveral readers of this week's Word column have asked if "tit for tat" plays a role here -- either in the history of tats as an abbreviation for tattoos or in my (mild) aversion to the word tats.

Says one faithful reader (after apologizing preemptively): "I couldn't help but think that the origin of 'tit for tat' must have been a strip show catering to tattooed sailors."

But tit for tat is a different story entirely (except for irrepressible punsters and giggly middle-schoolers). It's an alteration of "tip for tap," a less gory version of "an eye for an eye," and has no more connection to tattoos than Tweety Bird's "I tawt I taw a puddy tat."

Tat, however, has a number of obscure senses besides those I mentioned in the column. The OED lists it, with an 1840 citation, as an abbreviation for a different tattoo, a pony native to India. Another tat, of about the same vintage, means "rag" -- origin uncertain, but it could be related to Old English tættec, also "rag." A tat is also a tangle of hair. And tats or tatts can mean loaded dice (1688) or, in Australian slang, teeth (1919).

Then there's the military tattoo, a drumbeat or bugle call signaling troops to return to quarters. That one began as tap-too in the 17th century, from the Dutch taptoe in same sense. Who'd have thought English had adopted tattoo three times, in three senses, from three different languages?

Tat's all for now!

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Rules and realities of English usage from Boston Globe Ideas columnist Jan Freeman.
Jan Freeman, a former Boston Globe editor, has been writing the weekly column “The Word” since 1997. E-mail her at

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