Tattoo Etymology – The History of The Word and The Art of Tattooing

Although tattoos are popular with many social groups in our society but their origins are from very different era. It is believed that tattoo etymology begins in the English language in 1769 with Joseph Banks, the naturalist aboard The Endeavour, explorer Captain James Cook’s ship. Whilst sailing throughout Polynesia they took the word tatu from the Tahitian and Samoan languages. In Cook’s diary the word is first used as a noun and a verb. Sailors travelling in Polynesia reintroduced the custom into Europe and tattoos were mainly associated with sailors for years (and to some generations still are). Tattooing existed in pre-Christian Germanic and Celtic tribes and was described by Julius Caesar in 54 BC. Today, tattoos are very fashionable for many, but it began in the South Pacific.

When studied in the future, people will find that tattoo is the second most misspelled word on internet searches and is one of the most commonly misspelled words in the English language. It is often spelled tatu, tato, tatoo and tatto. This is the tattoo etymology given by the Oxford English Dictionary. A variety of spellings of the word tattoo have been used in the arts for example band names and clothing designs.

Originally from the Samoan and Tahitian language, Tatau means to mark twice with colour. This was pronounced tattaow but changed to tattoo by the English sailors who wanted a familiar pronunciation. The Marquesan word is tatu, this means to mark and puncture. Marquesas is a French Polynesian island with a related culture to Samoa and Tahiti, some think tattoo etymology started there. Another tattoo etymology comes from the Dutch and means ‘to stop the tap’. The police used to come to taverns in the night to shut the tap or faucet of the casks. The same word, taptoe, is a signal and was recorded in 1755 to mean a drum beat. This was the signal for soldiers or sailors to go to quarters at night.

There is still one more tattoo etymology worth noting. From the tattoo etymology of the drumbeat developed the devil’s tattoo. This is the action of someone drumming their fingers very fast in an attitude of impatience. First recorded in 1803, this tattoo etymology can also be attributed to any strong pulsation including the heart beat. This means an even and continuous drumming or rapping. These meanings are far from the understanding we now have for this word, which has acquired a variety of meanings to different social groups.

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