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The word tattoo, or tattow in the 18th century, is a loanword from the Samoan word tatau, meaning to strike. From Polynesian (Samoan, Tahitian, Tongan, etc.) tatau. In Marquesan, tatu. Before the importation of the Polynesian word, the practice of tattooing had been described in the West as painting, scarring or staining.
The etymology of the body modification term is not to be confused with the origins of the word for the military drumbeat or performance — see military tattoo. In this case, the English word tattoo is derived from the Dutch word taptoe.
Tattoos have also been used for identification in other ways. As early as the Zhou, Chinese authorities would employ facial tattoos as a punishment for certain crimes or to mark prisoners or slaves.
During the Roman Empire, gladiators and slaves were tattooed: exported slaves were tattooed with the words "tax paid", and it was a common practice to tattoo "Stop me, I'm a runaway" on their foreheads.