Expand your U.K. IQ: This kind of tattoo won't hurt
July 19, 2006
Throughout the warmer months, military tattoos pop up here and there, displaying marching troops, wartime melodies and, most recently, aircraft, which were featured at last weekend’s Royal International Air Tattoo at RAF Fairford.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word “tattoo” was first used in the 17th century and originally meant an evening drum or bugle signal recalling soldiers to their quarters. By the early 20th century, the meaning had evolved into any military display consisting of music, marching and exercises, usually taking place at night.
The development of the word, on the other hand, is a little vague. A spokesman for the Fairford air show said that the British word originated from a Dutch phrase “doe den tap toe,” which literally translates to “close or turn off the tap.” A horn signal was blasted to let Dutch innkeepers know when to shut down their taverns, so that Dutch soldiers could return to their billets at a reasonable hour.
In the 17th century, this Dutch practice was then “borrowed” by the British, who called it tap-too, which eventually became simply tattoo. Since then, it has evolved into a signal to signify “lights out.”
The Oxford English Dictionary reports that “there is reason to doubt” that version, saying the Dutch phrase may have already been in use with another meaning — something along the lines of “shut up! stop! cease!” — by the time our “tattoo” rolled around.
But how did it come to be connected to a major English air show? The word tattoo in the name of the air show was intended to be used in the same sense of calling military-types together at one place and time, the spokesman said.
“Basically, it’s like an international drum roll to summon the various air arms,” he said.
And no, the word is not related to that “I heart mother” tattoo you may sport on your arm. That one evolved around the late 18th century from the Polynesian word “tattow” or “tatau” for designs made on the skin.