Lesson #302: Tattoos…in Latin

Autobiographical note: I have seven tattoos, all of which my mother disapproves of to varying degrees. This post will entertain her.

The Latin word for tattoo is “stigma.” This actually makes perfect sense, when you think about it; the English word stigma means “a symbol of disgrace or infamy” and, historically, “a mark made on the skin by burning with a hot iron.”

Etymologically, the word English word is taken directly from the Latin word, which is, in turn, taken directly from the Greek word, meaning “mark” or “puncture,” specifically one “made with a pointed instrument.”*

On a slightly related note, when the Swede and I visited Auschwitz-Birkenau on our road trip, I learned that only those prisoners of the Auschwitz complex (Auschwitz, Birkenau (Auschwitz II), and Monowitz (Auschwitz III)) were tattooed. And that only those who were fit to work were tattooed. The second part of that seems intuitive, — because, really, what point is there to taking the time to issue a serial number to and then tattoo it on someone you’re about to gas? — but I had thought that all of the camps tattooed their prisoners. That’s a pretty big gap to exist in the education of someone who took two separate classes (one as an undergrad and one in grad school) on the Holocaust.**

*That information here.

**Full disclosure, I had a far lesser reaction to being at Auschwitz than I had expected to have. The Swede had a more severe reaction than he had anticipated. I imagine that this in, in part, because the US system focuses so much more on the Holocaust than the Swedish one does. And I think that’s partly down to the far more significant Jewish presence in America; there aren’t a whole lot of Jews in Sweden. (Point of interest, I was the only gentile in my undergrad Holocaust class.) So as someone who a. has two higher level semesters specifically focused on the Holocaust and b. studies revolutions in general, it was a more academic experience than I’d expected, whereas he was approaching it without the benefit (disadvantage?) of too much learning. This is not to say, however, that I was all “yeah…Auschwitz! Woo! Awesome!” or anything; just that it was less visceral than I’d anticipated.

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