by Piet Coetzer

When tit for tat turns bloody

There is more than one way to describe the trade union war

Tit for tat.jpg

The competition between the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu) for dominance at the platinum mines in the North West Province has all the signs of becoming a 'tit for tat' battle. But with several deaths already recorded, the 'tit for tat' description might be a too pleasant a one to use.

Based on a quick poll amongst friends and acquaintances, most people know the meaning of the expression, 'blow for a blow', as in 'an eye for an eye'.

I am afraid I have to disappoint you if you think that the expression,'tit for tat', which dates back to the 16th century, has any thing to do with an attractive part of the female anatomy.

Part of the answer is to be found in the fact that the 'tit for tat' expression as we know it today was probably a variation of an expression first recorded about a century earlier, namely 'tip for tap'.

Both 'tip' and 'tap' are archaic words to describe a light or glancing shot, as we would today find a batsman executing on the cricket pitch. Both words were used as verbs, too. A popular song of the late 16th century had a refrain, "Come tit me, come tat me / Come throw a kiss at me".

As time went by, the idea of it being associated with exchanging kisses fell by the wayside to rather be replaced with “come hit me and I will hit you back".

Both words were probably of imitative origin, mimicking the sound produced when something is lightly struck. And again we can think of bat on ball in a game of cricket.

In my research on the origins of 'tit for tat', and similar expressions to describe the process playing itself out between the two warring trade unions, I came across a very old proverb that is much more appropriate which is, 'blood will have blood'.

While the latest shooting of two officials of the NUM, killing one of them, appears to be in retaliation for the killing of an Amcu official in May, the meaning of the expression 'blood will have blood' seems right on the button; 'murderers will themselves be murdered', or 'violence begets violence'.

Although the proverb in its modern formulation was first recorded around the mid 16th century, its roots can be traced back to the very first book of the Bible. In Genesis 9;6 we read, “Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed”.

The modern expression, however, was popularised, by Shakespeare in his play Macbeth (3:4), in which, after being badly frightened by the ghost of Banquo, Macbeth says, "It will have blood; they say, blood will have blood".

The famous English writer already warned that no-one can get away with murder because someone will always take revenge. If the state does not succeed in satisfying the need for revenge of aggrieved parties by bringing those responsible to book, the chances of breaking this cycle of revenge and counter revenge are unlikely.

And for those who are disappointed that they were wrong in guessing the origin of the expression 'tit for tat' there is some consolation, they can let their imaginations run wild in speculating on the origin of the word 'tit-bit'.

Most sources I could find, indicate the origin of this term for a small tasty piece from a dish of food or a juicy bit of information about especially a scandal, as obscure. Some do, however, speculate that the 'tit' part of it might come from a slang word for tender.

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