Tit-for-Tat

By Maeve Maddox

An ESL reader has a question about the expression “tit for tat”:

If Tit is something we all commonly understand then is Tat the male counterpart of Tit? What does Tit and Tat mean in this idiom?

The impulse to attach a gendered meaning to the words in this idiom illustrates how folk etymologies are invented. In fact, “tit for tat” is an altered spelling of the expression “tip for tap.”

In the context of the original idiom, both tip and tap refer to a slight blow. Tip retains this meaning in the context of baseball. A pitch at which the batter swings and makes slight contact is called a tip. A “foul tip”—a tipped ball caught by the catcher—counts as a strike.

Tap, in the context of lightly striking something, is in general use as both noun and verb:

“Stopped at the traffic lights, he heard a tap on the window. (noun)

If a person has had multiple untreated concussions, could a simple tap to the head be harmful? (noun)

She paused, leaned over, and tapped him on the chin. (verb)

Woman in Court Fakes Hurt After Being Tapped on Head (verb)

“To give one tip for tap” was “to return blow for blow.” The figurative meaning was “to retaliate.” When the pronunciation and spelling changed, the original meaning remained attached to the altered form. Here are examples of recent usage of “tit for tat”:

“For the rest of the game, each team matched the other tit for tat.

Three men have been arrested after a series of violent tit-for-tat attacks  

[G]iven the way Netanyahu has treated Rivlin, one cannot help wondering if there will be tit for tat following the March elections. 

In the world of education, and most likely everywhere else, there is the pervasive presence of tit-for-tat. If I walked a mile to school in the snow, so can you. If I had to work hours and shed blood, sweat and tears, so can you.

“To give tit for tat” is not always used with the meaning “to return an injury with an injury.” Some speakers use it to convey the idea of cooperation or reciprocation:

Gifts should not be tit for tat, period. 

When we hear the following expressions, we know the Law of Reciprocity is at work: “Quid pro quo”; “Scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours”; “Tit-for-tat”; and “Give and take.”

In Cockney rhyming slang, “tit for tat” translates as “hat.”

Note: Rhyming slang uses a phrase to stand for a word that rhymes with the last word in the phrase. The phrases are then shortened to the beginning word or words. For example, the sentence “Me trouble bought ‘erself a new tit-fa” translates as “My wife bought herself a new hat.” (“trouble and strife”=wife).

Here are some more words and expressions that convey the sense of “to give tit for tat”:

fight back
hit back
respond
react
reciprocate
counterattack
return like for like
get back at someone
get even
get one’s own back
pay someone back
give someone a taste of their own medicine
take revenge
be revenged
avenge oneself

Click here to get access to 800+ interactive grammar exercises!


Share


8 Responses to “Tit-for-Tat”

  • Dane Zeller

    I respectfully bring to your attention your wonderful knowledge of the English language, and the slight imperfection in your baseball terminology.

    “A pitch at which the batter swings and makes slight contact is called a tip. A ‘foul tip’—a tipped ball caught by the catcher—counts as a strike.”
    You will get many comments from writer/umpires saying that a “tip” or a “foul tip” can only be so if the ball goes directly into the catcher’s glove and meets the requirements of a “catch”.

    Otherwise, a ball that makes slight contact can only be a foul ball, if it lands, and settles in foul territory. (If it settles in fair territory, it is a live ball subject to being called a single, a force out and other possible results.)

    Still love your “tips”, but only your writing ones.

  • Maeve

    Dane,
    So far I have demonstrated my frail understanding of soccer and cricket. Baseball makes three. You’d think I’d learn to avoid illustrations drawn from sports. Thanks for the clarification.

  • Dane Zeller

    Soccer, cricket, and baseball. That would be the triple crown. Hmmm…a horse racing term…or baseball. Confusing.

  • thebluebird11

    OK what is it with this Cockney slang tat/hat and all that stuff? This is not the first time I’ve come across this topic, although it may be the first time here. I do not get it. How is someone supposed to know that “tat” subs for hat and not cat or rat or bat? And that “trouble” is shortened from trouble and strife and therefore means wife? I am all for wordplay but…this is total chaos and mystery to me.

  • venqax

    “…this is total chaos and mystery to me”. As it’s meant to be to the uninitiated. There are qualities of a cant to Cockney that goes back to days when people of the lower classes of London’s East End often had “enterprise” reasons to obscure their conversations from outsiders and authorities. Not to besmirch all those who lived within hearing range of Bow Bells, but at some times and places past it’s been exceedingly difficult even for people of the most upstanding character to eke out a living strictly within the strictest bounds of the law. One the most useful aspects of Cockney was that it was indecipherable to anyone not really a “native speaker”, filled with idioms that had to be learned simply by rote, like a natural language is. ‘How is someone supposed to know that ‘tat’ subs for hat and not cat or rat or bat?” They aren’t, unless they already do!

  • Maeve

    Dane,
    For baseball, maybe that would be a Grand Slam.
    Oh well, I’m not going to beat myself up. It cuts both ways: whoever named the horse that won the Triple Crown this year is sure to know plenty about racing, but apparently didn’t know how to spell “pharaoh.”

  • thebluebird11

    @venqax: OK fine, as long as it ALWAYS means hat and they don’t change the meaning around to suit the occasion! I am sure I can live quite well without understanding Cockney rhyming slang! Maybe I can stump them with pig latin….

  • Alexander Hollins (leaking pen)

    “A pitch at which the batter swings and makes slight contact is called a tip. A ‘foul tip’—a tipped ball caught by the catcher—counts as a strike.”

    You will get many comments from writer/umpires saying that a “tip” or a “foul tip” can only be so if the ball goes directly into the catcher’s glove and meets the requirements of a “catch”.

    I fail to see any difference between those two statements, thats exactly what the poster said.

Leave a comment: