Tit for Tat – Idiom, Origin & Meaning

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Candace Osmond

Candace Osmond studied Advanced Writing & Editing Essentials at MHC. She’s been an International and USA TODAY Bestselling Author for over a decade. And she’s worked as an Editor for several mid-sized publications. Candace has a keen eye for content editing and a high degree of expertise in Fiction.

Language is such a powerful tool, don’t you agree? It lets us communicate complex ideas and emotions with one another in both silly and serious ways. Take “tit for tat,” for example. It sounds like something out of a nursery rhyme, but it actually has a pretty serious meaning. So, let’s take a look at the details and uncover what this expression really means.

Tit for Tat Meaning

Tit for Tat Idiom Origin Meaning 1

When we say “tit for tat,” we’re trying to describe a situation where someone retaliates against someone else by doing the same thing that was done to them or even something worse.

It’s like saying “an eye for an eye” or “a tooth for a tooth,” which you’ve probably seen in movies or read in books. Basically, it means repaying an action or behavior in kind as a form of petty retribution or revenge.

Some people think the Latin phrase “quid pro quo” means the same, but it’s slightly different. Quid pro quo is more like repaying something done for you or given to you and has a more positive context.

Is It Titt for Tatt or Tit for Tat?

The correct way to spell the phrase is “tit for tat,” not “titt for tatt.”

Do You Hyphenate Tit for Tat?

Nope! You don’t have to hyphenate the phrase “tit for tat.” It’s just written as three separate words, with each word playing its own role in the expression. There’s no need to hyphenate or connect the words in any way.

That is unless you’re using it as an adjective. When we turn a phrase into an adjective, it needs hyphens to be correct. Here’s an example. 

  • I got my tit-for-tat revenge on the loud neighbor. (Here, it modifies the word revenge.) 

Origin of the Term Tit for Tat

Tit for Tat Ngram
Tit for tat usage trend.

One of the earliest records of the phrase “tit for tat” goes back to the mid-1500s by an English playwright named John Heywood. Some say it’s actually a variant of an older phrase, “tip for tap,” where both tip and tap mean “a small blow,” like a physical hit or punch.

Tit for Tat Synonyms

  • An eye for an eye
  • Blow for blow
  • Measure for measure
  • Quid pro quo
  • Retaliation
  • Revenge
  • Reciprocity

Tit for Tat Examples in a Sentence

Tit for Tat Idiom Origin Meaning 2

Seeing things in the context of full sentences always helps me understand certain words and phrases.

  • After our neighbors played loud music late into the night and kept our baby up, we decided to engage in tit for tat by doing the same thing the next morning.
  • The rival countries engaged in tit for tat, both imposing trade sanctions on the other in response to the injustices set forth.
  • I felt the best way to handle the bully situation was with a tit-for-tat approach and just refused to deal with their behavior anymore. I just mirrored it right back to them.
  • The tit-for-tat feud between my two favorite celebrities played out in the media.
  • Instead of seeking a peaceful resolution, the two people continued their tit-for-tat exchange, which only escalated things further.

Tit for Tat Isn’t Always the Best

Unless you’re a mobster, the whole idea of tit for tat can quickly get out of hand in the real world. As a parent, it makes me think of telling my kids that two wrongs don’t make a right. But now that you have a good understanding of the phrase and how to use it, slip it into a conversation or some writing!

Want to know more idioms? Check out some others we covered:

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