Adventures in Etymology – Tat

Today we’re exploring the origins of the word tat.


tat [tæt] is:

  • cheap, tasteless, useless goods; trinkets.
  • tatty articles or a tatty condition
  • a tangled mass
  • an abbreviation of tattoo

It comes from the Hindi टाट (ṭāṭ – burlap, gunny, hessian, sackcloth, sacking), or from tatty (worn out, shabby, tawdry, unkempt), which comes from tatter (a shred of torn cloth), from tattered (torn, ragged), from the Middle English tater (torn or ragged strips of material hanging from a garment), from the Old Norse tǫturr (tatters, rags) [source].

The word tatty also means potato in parts of northern England and Scotland. It’s a diminutive of potato, which comes from the Spanish patata (potato, piece of rubbish), from the Taíno batata (sweet potato) [source].

Another word for potato is spud [spʌd], which also means a sharp spadelike tool used for rooting or digging out weeds, and comes from the Middle English spudde [spud] (a small or inferior knife), possibly from the Old Norse spjót (spear, lance), from the Proto-Germanic *speutą/speutaz (spear), from the PIE *spewd- (to press; urge; hurry) [source].

Here’s a video I made of this information:

Video made with Doodly [afflilate link].

I also write about words, etymology and other language-related topics on the Omniglot Blog, and I explore etymological connections between Celtic languages on the Celtiadur.

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2 thoughts on “Adventures in Etymology – Tat

  1. Simon, I’m surprised you didn’t mention that “tat” is a common (slang) abbreviation for tattoo.

    I suspect “tatty” is also an abbreviation (somewhere) for something else, which I won’t mention.

  2. I’ve added that to the definition now.

    When looking for a photo to illustrate this post I searched for tat, and almost all the photos that came up were of tattoos, so it seems that that usage is much more common than the trinkets one.

    Tat is also a verb that means “to make (something) by tatting”, and tatting is “an intricate type of lace made by looping a thread of cotton or linen by means of a hand shuttle” [source].

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