Fun Etymology Tuesday – Tattoo

Tuesday! Boy, time flies.

Today’s word is “tattoo”!

From a Polynesian noun, like Tahitian and Samoan “tatau”, Marquesan “tatu”, meaning puncture or mark made on skin. The Tahitian word might be the most likely direct origin of the English word, as it was first attested in English in the writings of Captain James Cook in 1769, around the time when he was on a journey to watch Venus transit over the sun, a journey that took him from Great Britain to, you guessed it, Tahiti!

While tattoos are certainly quite popular today (even some of us here at the HLC boast a few), attitudes to them used to be totally different: in 1902, Century Dictionary described them as found on “uncivilised” people or as a sentence of punishment, but that’s a very different understanding than the one we find during the late 17th century, when the term “Jerusalem cross” could be used to indicate tattoos (specifically those on the arms of pilgrims to the Holy land).

That’s it for our Tuesday fun!

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