Tattoo Etymology: The Origin of the Word “Tattoo”

  • Written By Dan Hunter on November 11, 2020
    Last Updated: January 1, 2021

Ink seems to be a universal form of human expression. Cultures throughout the world practice some form of body art and an estimated one in seven people in North America have at least one tattoo. 

However, to many of us, the history of tattoo art — and the word “tattoo” itself — is more mysterious. Although tattooing is an ancient practice dating back thousands of years, the word has foreign roots and entered the English language only a few centuries ago. Today we’ll discover the fascinating origin of the word “tattoo” and how it came to have the meaning that it does today.

The Etymology of “Tattoo”

Interestingly, the word “tattoo” has two distinct definitions, each with a completely different origin. Today, we usually use “tattoo” to refer to body art — more specifically, a permanent mark or design on one’s body, made by depositing pigment beneath the surface of the skin. 

Less commonly though, “tattoo” also refers to a rhythmic tapping (of a drum, for example) that was historically used to call soldiers to their quarters. 

The first meaning derives from Polynesian languages, while the other originated in The Netherlands. It might seem strange that two words from entirely different language families could converge into a single word in English. To understand this phenomenon, we’ll look at the roots of each meaning separately.

Tattoo as Body Art: Polynesian Roots

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the first meaning of “tattoo” — referring to body art — comes from Polynesian languages such as Tahitian, Samoan or Marquesan. It’s most likely connected to the words tatau or tatu, meaning “mark or puncture on the skin.”

Many historians believe that Captain James Cook first introduced these words into the English language in the mid-18th century. In 1768, Cook set off for his first expedition to the South Pacific on the HMS Endeavour. When the ship arrived in Tahiti, Cook was entranced with the beauty of the island and its people — and he was struck by the unique, vibrant body art that adorned their skin.

Stick and poke – a historic tattooing method

Naturalists aboard the Endeavour were the first Europeans to observe and document the practice of tattooing in Tahiti. Many of the ship’s sailors got their own tattoos from locals. Meanwhile, artists on board the ship made drawings depicting the body art they saw in New Zealand and the Society Islands.

In 1769, after returning to England, Cook published his account of this first journey to Polynesia. In it, we can find the first documented instance of the word “tattoo” in the English language, when Cook describes how men and women would paint or “tattoo” their bodies by inserting black pigment under the skin.

By this time in Europe, people had already begun creating inked body art designs, therefore, it wasn’t Cook who “discovered” the practice of tattooing. However, he brought renewed attention to the art form, as well as a new word to describe it in English.

Some believe that tatau could be an onomatopoeic word — with tat signifying the “tapping” of the needle into the skin, and au representing the outcry of the person receiving the tattoo (“ow!”). Wherever the word came from, tatau formed the base for the word “tattoo” in numerous other languages, including:

  • Spanish (tatuaje)
  • French (tatouage)
  • Portuguese (tatuagem)
  • Italian (tatuaggio)
  • German (tatowierung)
  • Swedish (tatuering)

Beating a Tattoo: Dutch Origins

The word’s other meaning comes from the Dutch taptoe. Broken down into its root words tap (or “faucet of a cask”) and toe (meaning “shut”), taptoe refers to the time of the evening when police used to visit taverns to turn off the taps. The word was also used as a figurative expression to mean “say no more” in 17th-century Dutch. 

This meaning of “tattoo” first appeared in 1644, during the English Civil War. At a specific time of the night, someone would beat a tattoo — usually on a drum — to inform army men to retire to their quarters for bed. Colonel John Hutchinson issued a warning that his soldiers would be fined if they were discovered drinking in any tavern or alehouse “after the hour when the Tap-too beats.”

Although this usage of the word has mostly fallen out of use, it’s still a recognized definition in dictionaries.

Wrapping Up

The word “tattoo” is relatively new compared with the actual practice of tattooing. Although in modern times, it’s an instantly recognizable word for a uniquely personal and intimate form of art. Whether they’re worn as a means of creative expression, a symbol of faith or a reminder of lost loved ones, tattoos carry whatever meaning or symbolism we give them.

Tattoos aren’t required to be anything more than “marks on the skin,” but to many of us, they mean much more than that: they’re one-of-a-kind pieces of art that stay with us for our entire lives.