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The meaning behind "tit for tat"

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There are a few different ways to talk about retaliating against someone in equal terms. There's "an eye for an eye," "a tooth for a tooth," and "measure for measure," among others. 

These phrases are all pretty transparent. If you take my eye, I'll take your eye. If you make that move, I'll make this move.

But what about "tit for tat?" One of English professor Anne Curzan's colleagues recently asked us about this one, and it's no wonder -- the meaning isn't nearly as obvious.

The expression "tit for tat" actually started off as "tip for tap," where "tip" refers to a light strike or blow. With that, it's not too difficult to see how a "tip" could be exchanged for a "tap," just like a "blow for a blow" or a "strike for a strike."

"Tit for tat" comes along in the 1500s. "Tit" comes from an old Germanic verb that could mean to strike a light blow, similar to "tip" in the expression's earlier form. The "tat" is probably just onomatopoetic. That is, it just sounds good with "tit"-- similar to "chit chat" or "flip flop."

There's an interesting piece of trivia about "tit for tat." This phrase can be found in the name of a game that you've probably played at least once or twice. It's the one with the x's and o's and a square grid with nine spaces.

Of course, we're talking about tic tac toe, but did you know that as recently as the 1960s, the game was called tit tat toe? If you remember playing the game when it was still called tit tat toe, let us know below. 

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Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.
Rebecca Kruth is the host of Weekend Edition at Michigan Radio. She also co-hosts Michigan Radio’s weekly language podcast That’s What They Say with English professor Anne Curzan.
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