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Tattoo

Q From Frank Danielzik, Denmark: I’ve been wondering about the term tattoo. It is used for the ink drawings on a body as well as for military festivals. On the homepage of the Edinburgh Tattoo I found the explanation “The word ‘tattoo’ comes from the closing-time cry in the inns in the Low Countries during the 17th and 18th centuries — ‘Doe den tap toe’ (‘Turn off the taps’)” for the word, but how did it get connected to its two modern meanings?

A That story shouted “folk etymology” at me. Then I consulted the standard references and discovered it’s correct. My instincts are deserting me — definitely time for a holiday.

The first sense of the term was a signal on a drum or a bugle to call soldiers to their quarters at night. It’s first recorded in 1644, during the early stages of the English Civil War. Colonel John Hutchinson was then the governor of Nottingham Castle and head of the Parliamentary garrison in the city (he was to be later one of the signatories of Charles I’s death warrant). In his standing orders he wrote: “If anyone shall bee found tiplinge or drinkinge in any Taverne, Inne, or Alehouse after the houre of nyne of the clock at night, when the Tap-too beates, hee shall pay 2s. 6d.” (Today that would be about £5.00 or $8.)

By the following century, the usual phrase was to beat tattoo, which makes clear that by then it was usually sounded on a drum, hence one of our modern meanings, a rhythmic tapping or drumming (“He beat a tattoo with his fingers on the table-top.”) And it’s clearly related to taps in the sense of a bugle call for lights to be put out in army quarters (which was originally also sounded on a drum).

In the form you quoted from the Web site, doe den tap toe, tap is the spigot of a beer barrel. It seems that the Dutch police had a neat way of closing the pubs at night, by making the rounds and instructing innkeepers to shut the taps on their casks.

The other sense of tattoo, to mark the skin with pigments, could not be more different. It was brought back from the South Pacific by Captain Cook, and appears in his journal for July 1769: “Both sexes paint their Bodys, Tattow, as it is called in their Language. This is done by inlaying the Colour of Black under their skins, in such a manner as to be indelible.” It could be from any one of several Polynesian languages, such as Tahitian, Samoan, or Tongan.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 4 Feb. 2006

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 4 February 2006.