Printable Version
Pronunciation: tæ-tu Hear it!

Part of Speech: Noun or Verb

Meaning: 1a. An evening drum beat or bugle call signaling soldiers or sailors to return to their quarters. b. A military march accompanied by music and other sound effects such as volleys of gunfire. c. A continuous tapping or drumming sound. 2. A permanent design made on the skin by injecting dyes beneath the skin.

Notes: Cannot hear the tattoo in the tattoo parlorToday we are offering two words for the price of one (and an unbeatable price it is, too). There are, in fact, two words tattoo, as the meanings above and Word History below indicate. This implies that there are, as well, two verbs tattoo. The first means to drum or thump successively, as to tattoo the table nervously with your fingers. The second verb tattoo means simply to implant a graphic tattoo under the skin. A person who makes such implantations is a tattooist.

In Play: Although most people who apply tattoos to their skin do so for aesthetic reasons, practical motivations abound: "Clarissa finally gave up and had a tattooist tattoo all her Internet passwords on the back of her hand." In the following sentence, it is difficult to tell which of the two tattoos is intended: "When the rear wheel of Harley's motorcycle spun in the mire, it tattooed his back with mud spatters.

Word History: Tattoo in the first sense comes from Dutch taptoe "tap-shut", where tap refers to the beer spigot in a tavern. The Dutch bugle call, therefore, not only calls soldiers back to camp, but lets tavern owners know that it is time to halt the flow of beer. That same Dutch word tap is the origin of the final bugle call of the evening or the one played at military funerals, known as taps. The second tattoo, like the like-sounding taboo, is a Marquesan word brought to England from the Polynesian islands by Captain James Cook. This is why tattooing was first seen in the West on sailors. Today, of course, the craze to imitate the Polynesians has spread pretty much throughout the entire industrialized world. (We thank our old friend, Lyn Laboriel, for another word that tattoos itself to our minds.)

Dr. Goodword,

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