1769 and Captain James Cook
To Tatau or Not To Tatau
According to Merriam-Webster, 1777 is when the word “tattoo” entered into English usage, with the meaning of inked images in skin, and was put into the dictionary. However, we can reasonably trace a likely derivation of the word which precedes that given date. We know from the records of the 1769 expedition of Captiain James Cook, famed British Naval explorer, to the South Pacific that there was a Tahitian word tatau, which means “to mark.” However, the actual word “tattoo” existed before Cook and his voyages – about 150 years before.In a happy coincidence, this previous form of the word actually meant “a rapid rhythmic rapping” and was used by military personnel (such as Cook and his crew) when referring to the call sounded before taps. The coincidence is a happy one because the sound of tattooing in Tahiti was, in fact, a rapid tapping where the set of needles, looking like a small rake, was hit with a stick to drive ink under the skin. Although the Tahitians called it tatau, Cook and his men likely substituted a near sound-alike word from their own background. The west was forever changed when these early sailors absorbed this part of Tahitian culture and brought tattooed natives and their own tattoos back with them.
In an interesting side note, Cook was later killed on the beach in Hawaii some ten years later (on another voyage) at Kealakekua Bay during a quick altercation with locals over a small boat that had been taken.