What Is the Origin of the Word "tattoo"?

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The origin of the noun "tattoo," meaning a design or mark imprinted on a person's skin, is from Polynesian nouns with the same meaning. In Tahiti and Samoa, the original noun was "tatau." In the Marquesas Islands, the original noun was "tatu."

Captain Cook's writings are the earliest available records that attest to the use of "tattoo." These first records of the word's usage are from 1769. The same records attest to the use of the word as a verb, meaning to mark someone's skin with pigment.

An identically spelled noun was in usage before "tattoo" attained its modern meaning. "Tattoo" first referred a signal that called men to the sailors' quarters at night. This noun originated from the Dutch "taptoe."