Word-o’-the-Week: Tit for Tat

“But if young women are well practiced in the arts of marginal revenge, the universe has its own sense of tit for tat.”

—from Rules of Civility by Amor Towles

from ‘Punch’ magazine, London, 1856

Once in a while I get interested in an expression simply because I have no clue where it came from. Such is the case with “tit for tat”! Admittedly, I also looked this one up because I wondered if the first word of said expression has any relation (etymologically) to the somewhat crass term referring to a woman’s breast (which it apparently does not). If you, like me, hate the words tit, tits, titties, or any variation thereupon, don’t feel bothered about saying “tit for tat” once in a while. From what I can tell, they aren’t too related in terms of origins.

(And UGH, I hate those words so much that I HATE that I had to even type them here. UGH!)

Anyway, it seems tit for tat is a variation of the phrase tip for tap, first seen hundreds of years ago. The ever-reliable OED defines it as “One blow or stroke in return for another; an equivalent given in return (usually in the way of injury, rarely of benefit); retaliation”; and they offer the first example of playwright John Heywood’s verse “The Spider and the Flie”:

That is tit for tat in this altricacion. (1556)

So simply, each of the words tit, tat, tip, and tap all (at some point) meant “a blow” or “a strike.” One was the same as the other; hence, one strike for another. Hit for hit, punch for punch. You give one, you get one in return.

It puts me in the mind of the German word schlag, which is a multipurpose term that always refers to a “hit” of something, whether it be used literally or figuratively (for example: Kaffee mit schlag is coffee with a hit of whipped cream). The fact that English has FOUR short, onomatopoeic words that all basically mean schlag just makes me laugh. I mean, how much hitting and punching was going on that FOUR words were necessary?

Two things I haven’t made sense of yet:

1) First, that tit for tat is also rhyming slang for a hat (or titfer) in the twentieth century (see the Songs and slang of the British soldier: 1914-1918, a dictionary);

2) Second, that tit for tat is apparently a ladies’ phrase according to J. Quincy in the early 19th century: “I shall . . . give . . . what politicians call a Rowland for their Oliver, and what the ladies term tit for tat.” Say what? To be honest, I can’t even tell which John Quincy the OED is referring to here (the physician? the president? don’t know). This idea of the term being “for feminine use” points me back toward the coarser meaning of tit, but I still don’t think there’s proof enough for me to connect them.

Just some weird, werd-nerd musings from the country . . .

Love,

J

PS – While researching, I discovered that Tit for Tat is also the title of an erotic piece by the very prolific romance writer Delilah Fawkes. Pretty sure THAT title is a double entendre.

PPS – On a related note, someone found this blog by Googling “book a hooker” today. A first!

(Photo credit: Dickinson College Civil War Research Engine)