Where does the expression “tit for tat” come from and What does it mean?

A blow for a blow; an ill deed for an ill deed. The phrase “tit for tat”, which expresses a moderate retaliation, goes back only about four centuries in its present form, but before that it was “a tip for a tap,” which goes back certainly a hundred years earlier and probably much more than that.

A “tip,” in Middle English, was a light blow; a “tap,” then as now, was also a light blow. So the expression is far weaker than the old Hebrew adage, “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.”

We use it chiefly in reference to speech: an insult for an insult; an unkind remark in return for an unkind remark.

Probably the original expression was influenced by the French phrase, “tant pour tint”, literally, so much for so much.

About Karen Hill

Karen Hill is a freelance writer, editor, and columnist. Born in New York, her work has appeared in the Examiner, Yahoo News, Buzzfeed, among others.

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