tit for tat

We all know that tit for tat means retaliation, to return a slight that one has received, but the choice of the two words make little sense. Why do we use this odd phrase?

The phrase was originally tip for tap and referred to an exchange of blows. From a poem, written sometime before 1466, by Charles, Duke of Orleans (he wrote a series of poems in English during his captivity following the battle of Agincourt):

As strokis grete not tippe, nor tapp, do way The rewdisshe child so best lo shall he wynne.
(As strokes great, not tip, nor tap, do the best for the uncouth child, lo he shall win.)

And there is this written by George Gascoigne prior to 1577:

Much greater is the wrong that rewardeth euill for good, than that which requireth tip for tap.

The altered form tit for tat appears in John Heywood’s 1556 The Spider and the Flie:

That is tit for tat in this altricacion.

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)

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