Tattoos and superstars — like peanut butter and jelly. In just the past few weeks, singers Katy Perry and Miley Cyrus, actresses Angelina Jolie and Megan Fox, basketball sensation Chris “Bird Man” Andersen, and reality-TV dad Jon Gosselin all have showed off new tats.
The practice of tattooing dates back to the Neolithic period. The word, however, is a relatively recent addition to the English language. The fearless British explorer and cartographer Captain James Cook introduced “tattow” — based on the Samoan and Tahitian word tatau — in his journals detailing a mid-18th century expedition around the world.
Chronicling his first voyage, Cook wrote, “Both sexes paint their Bodys, Tattow, as it is called in their Language. This is done by inlaying the Coulour of Black under their skins, in such a manner as to be indelible.” (Cook also separately introduced “taboo” into the English language, borrowed from the Tongan’s “tabu.”)
Mammalian skin is the largest organ in the integumentary system, with three main layers — epidermis (the outer layer), dermis (the middle layer that cushions the body), and the hypodermis (the layer that attaches the rest of the skin to bone and muscle). Indelible tattoos are inked on the dermis.
But there is another, lesser-known meaning for tattoo that derived independently of body markings. “Tattoo” can also mean a military signal — often a drumbeat or bugle call — that signals for soldiers to return to their quarters for the night.
The word is believed to come from the Dutch taptoe. Toe meant “to shut,” and tap referred to the “faucet of a cask.” In the evenings, as the story goes, police would visit taverns to shut off the cask taps.