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The Word

Yuck factor

Some words are uglier than others

By Jan Freeman
August 31, 2008
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WORDS GET CALLED ugly for all sorts of reasons. Sometimes it's a case of pretty is as pretty does; it's the meaning of pimp that makes it seem ugly, especially to the pre-hip-hop crowd. Moist, on the other hand, has an unpleasant vibe for many younger women, while their mothers associate it with baked goods.

Groin is "incredibly ugly," said law professor and blogger Ann Althouse, because it sounds like "groan." Blog itself is widely despised - Vogue editor Anna Wintour reportedly called it "vulgar" - and here sound and sense are both at work, with clog, slog, and flog doing their part to tarnish the word.

John McIntyre of the Baltimore Sun reports that an editor banned "gutted," half a century ago, for ugliness, no doubt because guts was a rude word in his youth. (At least the ban was listed in the "Whims and Foibles" section of the stylebook, where it belonged.)

And what about tat, short for tattoo? I've been seeing this more and more in print - "Angelina Jolie takes on a gats-and-tats role," "the one- or two-tat dilettante" - and though I have no aversion to tattoo, the word, and only a mild resistance to tattoos in the flesh, I don't much like the sound of tats.

Is that because it reminds me of tatty, meaning shabby? And what is tatty? I had always thought it came from tatting, a lace-knotting craft that peaked about a century ago. And in the usual semiconscious process of folk-etymologizing, I figured that tatting, used as an edging, probably got shabby with wear, hence "tatty."

My folk etymology, however, was chugging down the wrong track, as such stories usually do. Tatty, dating from the 16th century, originally meant tangled or matted like an animal's coat, the Oxford English Dictionary explains. (The "shabby, worn" sense appears in the 20th century.)

Tatting, however, doesn't come along till 1820. And if it's related to tatty - which doesn't seem impossible, since tatting involves creating tangles, albeit artistically - nobody has proven the connection. In fact, Cassell's slang dictionary links tatty not to animals but to the Hindi tat, in English a kind of coarse canvas.

Whoever has it right, neither word is related to tattoo, the skin decoration; that word is an 18th-century import from a Polynesian source.

Still, for many of us there is an association between tatty and tattoo, one based in the unsavory image tattoos had in the not-so-distant past. "Has body ink risen above its somewhat 'tatty' image?" an Australian newspaper asked online readers.

And anyone who reads British novels or newspapers has also met tat, the noun formed from tatty. Tat is junk or rubbish, whether in our closets or on the shelves of souvenir shops and thrift stores. Viv Groskop of the London Evening Standard, musing on the popularity of cheap, disposable clothing, recently imagined "the mammoth post-funeral clear-outs of tat our children will face." And a British research firm has a name for a new syndrome, shopping on the Web while tippling: It's BLOTO, for "Buying Loads of Tat Online."

The American tat for tattoo also has a dubious past - it was coined as prison slang in the '50s - but I didn't know that, so it couldn't have tainted tat for me. It had to be tatty, along with the British tat, that tilted me against tat. And I'm sure I'll get over it.

Tat, meanwhile, is already branching out in unexpected ways. I found it online, in a misspelling of coup d'etat, more often than I would have guessed: Quite a lot of people think the French term for "violent overthrow of a government" is spelled coup de tat.

It's a mistake, but it's also a potential pun - as a few editors have already noticed. The website Londonist printed a definition of coup de tat (credited to the Profanisaurus, but no longer available there) as a "takeover of a previously classy high street by pound shops, Wilkinson's and scratter-filled amusement arcades." (Rough translation, with assistance from Sussex University linguist Lynne Murphy: "takeover of a previously classy main street by dollar stores, K marts, and amusement arcades full of trashy people.")

Coup de tat would also work, in countries where tat means "trash," as a description of the crystal stemware or silk shirt you score at the thrift store.

For Americans, the coup de tat could adopt the sense a blog commenter at Smirking Chimp suggests: "Coup-de-tat? Is that like when folks with lots of piercings and tattoos take over the state?" Or it could describe a strategy for getting someone's attention. "He couldn't take his eyes off my dragonfly tattoo - it was a coup de tat."

And there's nothing like a hard-working pun to make a word seem eager to please; tat is sounding less tatty every minute.

the word
(Annie Rosen/Globe illustration)
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