at the Wording Desk

    A New Website, Funny & Accurate about Colorful Origins of Words & Phrases in English


Tat is my favorite shoddy monosyllable. Although not as popular in North American English as it is in British English, where it originated, tat is making usage inroads across the pond too. A tat can be a rag, shoddy merchandise, junk, a low-born harlot, a scruffy layabout. Tat is apt and stark. “What tat!” barks the cruel fashion maven, dismissing some young girl’s shabby but delightfully cheeky assemblage of tasteless leftover clothes, heretofore consigned to clothy oblivion and hung inside plastic shrouds in the oubliette of a basement closet.

Word Origin
The still slangy tat may be a modern back-formation, perhaps a clipping of Old English tættec ‘a rag, a tatter’ — an Anglo-Saxonism that is also the origin of the adjective ‘tatty.’ Synonyms for the colloquial snub tatty are scruffy, untidy, cheap, neglected, sometimes sleazy and disreputable.

In one newer, unrelated use, tat has become an affectionate diminutive for a tattoo. “Seen Tiffany’s tasty new tat? It shows baby’s lips tattooed around the aureoles of both her breasts.” These, of course, are the lifestyle choices of persons one would not invite to afternoon tea, lest the eating of your fresh scones be followed by a home invasion.

The Psychological Reason for Tattooing Yourself
Much pseudoscientific, sociological drivel has been written about tattoo acquisition. I don't think it is at all mysterious. If one has no identity, if one can accomplish nothing early in life, if one's low intelligence and void personality cannot contrive an identity or at the least cobble together a ramshackle selfhood sometime after puberty, well then—never fear—the feckless, zero-sum doofus can go out and buy an identity and wear it home on a t-shirt. Or the tattoo of frisky sperm on his left testicle may proclaim some brain-stem to be “a, like, totally awesome rebel.” Yeah, right. And so a halfwit tries for an upgrade to nincompoop. Earth residents are preponderantly moronic and it is helpful that some of them label themselves with tattoos.

New friends Lindsay and Lily spent some time hanging together at the Chateau Marmont on Wednesday, and then decided to hit a late-night tattoo parlor to get matching tats, the very same tat Rihanna has on her index finger. It says “shhh.” How lame must a person be to have to copy a celebrity’s’s tattoo? Would I be rude to suggest they “get a life”?

Where Did the Word Tattoo Come From?

The word tattoo injected its presence under the skin of English usage in a big way after British Navy Captain James Cook (1729-1778 CE) wrote his memoirs about his voyages of discovery and exploration in the Pacific Ocean, mapping uncharted lands and islands from New Zealand to Hawaii. In his Journals (1769 CE), Cook wrote “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.” In all of the Polynesian languages, like Samoan and Tahitian, the word appears in similar form as tatau or tatu referring precisely to such markings and to how they are made.

Citation for Tat = Shoddy Goods
“That long deleted album ... sounds like a heap of prissy irrelevant whimsical lysergic tat with Disney lyrics.”  ─ 1976 New Musical Express 12 Feb. 26/3

Summing up
Tat meaning ‘shoddy goods’ should be part of our working English vocabulary. Why? Because English is not a tongue noted for a vituperative word hoard. We Anglophones are poor in insult words and terms of abuse that excoriate their victims. Yet every modern language needs a quiver of toxic word darts to propel with precision into the foreheads of evildoers and moral slugs. Therefore each new abusive gem uncovered merits wide dispersal. We live up to our ears in shoddy goods, peddled by immoral hucksters and con men with no conscience. Let us label them as we meet them. If their product is tat, say so!

Bill Casselman, March 21, 2016

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Tat & Tattoos: a Useful Insult & a Body Insult

Bill Casselman