A Facebook meme (with 146 thousand shares) asks:

How old were you when you learned that the game TAG stands for "Touch and Go"

I was today years old...

Is the etymology of the game tag an acronym of "touch and go"?

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    @DevSolar: Please post answers rather than comments.
    – Oddthinking
    Jul 17, 2018 at 13:46
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    Any purported etymology from an acronym before about 1900 is highly suspect. Jul 17, 2018 at 17:06
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    @chrylis Any purported etymology from an acronym after 1900 is nearly as suspect. Jul 17, 2018 at 17:34
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    @Mark There's a horrific modern propensity to invent and circulate folk etymologies based on acronyms, well out of proportion to the handful of actual acronyms that have made it into general use. Jul 17, 2018 at 23:30
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    Surely this should simply be on the English stackoverflow site?
    – Fattie
    Jul 18, 2018 at 11:33

2 Answers 2


No, but the association between "tag" and "touch and go" is more than 100 years old.

See the 1912 printing of the song A GAME OF TAG:

playing tag, Touch and go

And in the 1902 Music for the child world: Rhythms, marches and games there is also the song "GAME OF TAG" (music only, no lyrics), with the note below the title "Touch and go. Good for all kinds of running games. …"

Nonetheless, the February 1866 American Agriculturist, volume XXV, at page 67 says:

Game of “Tag,” with variations
Probably every boy and girl of ten years old knows how to play the old game of “tag.” It is so old that the children of the Roman empire used to play it thousands of years ago; the name “tag” comes from their language, tago, or tango, as it written in later times, meaning “I touch.”

Similarly, the 1848 The pentamerone, or, The story of stories, translated by J.E. Taylor says:

… English game of 'Tag' (Touch, from the Latin tango or tago), in which one, who is called Tag, runs after and tries to touch the others ; when he succeeds he cries Tag, and the one touched becomes Tag in his turn

Also, the 1828 Webster's Dictionary says:

the original orthography of the Latin tango, to touch, which was tago.

Other dictionaries such as the Century Dictionary (1891) dispute the Latin origin theory, instead saying the origin is unknown.

In Drayton's 1622 Poly-Olbion, song 30, it is stated:

Whereas the mountain nymphs, and those that do frequent
The fountains, fields and groves, with wondrous merriment,
By moonshine many a night, do give each other chase,
At Hood-wink, Barley-break, at Tick, or prison-base

and in Francis Willughby's Book of Games, written in the 1660s, it is stated:

One boy touches another and cries, Tick. Hee that is touched runs after the other that touched him, to tick him againe, and then runs from him as soone as hee has touched him. Hee that is ticked, & cannot tick againe, is beaten.

So one theory, as explained in The Lore of the Playground: One hundred years of children's games, is that "tick" was the original term for the game, and the names "tag" and "tig" derived therefrom.

The earliest reference to the game as "tag" is in the 4 February 1738 The Craftsman, reprinted the same month in The Gentleman's Magazine (quoted below) as well as in The London Magazine:

A manuscript writen by a great Uncle of mine, who dy'd soon after the Revolution came lately into my hands. It is a sort of chronological animadversion upon the Plays and Pastimes of Children […]

In Queen Mary's Reign, TAG was all the Play; where the Lad saves himself by touching of cold Iron – By this it was intended to shew the Severity of the Church of Rome; and that if People had once gone off to the Reformers, tho' they were willing to return to their old Idolatry, they must do it upon hard Terms – But in latter Times, this Play hath been alter'd amongst Children of Quality, by touching of Gold instead of Iron.

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    Hmm, the Oxford English Dictionary doesn't seem to buy this theory; it attests the name of the game to only 1738, and for etymology says only "origin obscure" (the origin of the much older use of the word for a bit of cloth is also listed as uncertain). Those sources claiming a Latin origin for the children's game sound like folk etymology, just like "touch and go", only of an earlier vintage.
    – 1006a
    Jul 17, 2018 at 15:34
  • @1006a I mostly agree, but the 1738 reference is reporting the contents of an older manuscript and says "In Queen Mary's Reign, TAG was all the Play; where the Lad saves himself by touching of cold Iron". books.google.com/… So it is at least as old as Queen Mary. It also discusses the theory that "Queen Elizabeth herself invented the Play".
    – DavePhD
    Jul 17, 2018 at 15:57
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    Note also that the Webster entry is factually ludicrous. Tagō is not the “original orthography” of Latin tangō, for several reasons, primarily: 1) Latin did not have a fixed orthography at all; 2) Tangō is a nasal-infix present tense formation, which is a pattern that was productive in late Proto-Indo-European, but had lost productivity even in Proto-Italic. There are hints of an earlier s-present (taxō), but it’s unattested; there is no evidence that tagō was ever, in pre-Classical Latin, a valid form of the verb at all. Jul 18, 2018 at 14:57
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    @JanusBahsJacquet This 1690 book says "Tango, de l'ancien tago". books.google.com/…
    – DavePhD
    Jul 18, 2018 at 16:20
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    @DavePhD It’s wrong. It also says that comes from θίγω/θιγγαίω, which is equally wrong—even if the two were cognates (they’re not, and there’s really no feasible way they could be), there’s no way the Latin would come from the Greek. Etymology from that long ago is generally not very reliable. If they hit upon the right origin of something, it was usually by chance. Jul 18, 2018 at 16:24

Created an account just to answer this question.

Whilst 'tango' does indeed mean touch, I don't think this is the true origin.

It only takes 5 minutes to Google (and/or a knowledge of British 'tag' variants) to know that tag is sometimes called 'tig', although this isn't really in common use in the modern day.

Tig's origin is supposedly from the old English word 'tick' - to lightly touch.

The old English word tick derives from the Dutch word 'tik' or 'tikken' - to touch.

Following is under the headword "tick" in "Folk-etymology: A Dictionary of Verbal Corruptions Or Words Perverted in Form or Meaning, by False Derivation or Mistaken Analogy" (1882) Google Books

enter image description here

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    A 4 February 1738 source's author is explaining what his deceased great uncle's book says: that "tag" was played in Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth's reigns. books.google.com/… What is the evidence that the spelling "tig" was used first?
    – DavePhD
    Jul 18, 2018 at 12:43
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    This answer could be improved by being clearer about its sources (Google is not a source, though it may be a good way of finding sources). The text in the screenshot looks relevant, but it's not clear where it comes from, and who is saying the "probably".
    – IMSoP
    Jul 18, 2018 at 12:58
  • @IMSoP the reference is the entry for "tick" in "Folk-etymology: A Dictionary of Verbal Corruptions Or Words Perverted in Form or Meaning, by False Derivation or Mistaken Analogy" (1882) books.google.com/…
    – DavePhD
    Jul 18, 2018 at 13:19
  • Cuz, your reference is saying that "tick" ... "is probably a corruption of tig", but you are contradicting your reference and saying the opposite.
    – DavePhD
    Jul 18, 2018 at 13:25
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    And although it doesn't prove that 'tag' is a derivative of 'tig' in the first instance, you could ask just about any British person of a certain age of above and they'd confirm that tag, tig, and it are the same game.
    – Cuz
    Jul 18, 2018 at 14:27

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