Tit for tat

Being in a place, currently, where reliable internet is notable by its absence, wild conjecture is just about all that I have to fall back on. I am bothered, as so often happens, by the etymology of a saying that has lodged in my head, this time from the morning news. The phrase is tit-for-tat. Now, don’t get me wrong; I’m not stupid (ok, let’s introduce some perspective here, I’m not that stupid) I do know what tit-for-tat means. What I don’t know is why it means it. I know what tit is: I might be sixty, but I am still a boy. I went to school with other boys. We all knew what a tit was – although, much like unicorns, none of us had actually seen one in the flesh. And I know what tat is: I have been wearing it for sixty years. So, I also know that, as a saying, there must be something more to it, because that doesn’t sound like a fair swap at all.

I also know that tits are birds – although where, exactly, a tit finishes and a finch starts, I am not at all certain. And I do not, of course, have internet with which to check. Furthermore, I recall having an elderly aunt, when I myself was very young, who used to tat. I seem to remember that she tatted (I presume that that is correct) bedside carpets – although don’t hold me to that. I am not sure. My memory is not what it was – and in truth, it never was what it should have been. The bedside mats could, conceivably, have been co-incidental. They may have been produced as a means of filling time whilst the more time-consuming divertissement of the main tatting task trundled on – in much the same way as an angler might whittle a piece of wood whilst waiting for a fish to bite, or a chess player might fashion a detailed 3D image of the lunar landscape out of papier-mâché before anyone actually gave a toss. (I believe – to be fair – that there is actually a time limit for making a move in chess; it just feels like forever, although I can’t currently check that either – obviously…)

It’s just weird how vulnerable you feel without the facility to check facts. Even when I’m sure of what I’m saying, I still feel it necessary to verify. If I can’t check facts, I don’t use them. Odd isn’t it? It didn’t used to be that way. My mum always had a thousand facts at her fingertips. Some of these ‘facts’ were so wrong that they had passed ‘Go’ and were coming back the other way, but she never checked them. She didn’t feel the need. Even if somebody disagreed with her, short of toting the encyclopaedia about with them, they couldn’t disprove her. Today, of course, we all do exactly that with our phones – except when we have no reception and no network. I suppose that eternal uncertainty is the price we have to pay to technology: a kind of quid pro quo to the God of Limitless Knowledge. Whether it is a tit-for-tat, I may never know – well not, at least, until I get some internet.

OK, so here we go (I now have internet) the original phrase was tip-for-tap, where both words had the similar meaning of ‘a small blow’ – tap, of course, still retains that definition.

Quid Pro Quo has a very similar meaning, but without the retaliatory connotations, making it a much friendlier phrase in my Thesaurus. It does not, however, include the word ‘Tit’, the use of which in my title I expect to at least double my readership…

Revenge is a confession of pain. Latin Proverb.