When the British newspaper the Independent on Sunday last weekend headed its front page “Blair condemns ‘tacky’ Diana industry”, it expected its readers to take in that word in its sense of something that is in poor taste, cheap or vulgar. An example quoted in the article is a computer game in which players can drive a speeding Mercedes through a tunnel while being pursued by paparazzi on motorbikes.
But tacky in this sense is fairly modern in British usage. It is an American term dating from the 1860s (even older in its meaning of a poor quality horse or poor farmer) that only seems to have made inroads over here in the last few decades and which is still regarded as informal. And nobody seems to know where the word in that sense comes from, which is unsurprising as the whole history of tacky and its root noun tack is enough to confuse anyone.
The oldest usage of tack is that relating to the nail, which derives from an ancient Germanic word that is also the origin of the modern German Zacken, “prong; tooth”, which entered English via the Old French tache, “fastening, nail”. This seems mostly to have had the sense in English of something small or slight in the nail line, a fastener that is used to affix only a light object or to hold it temporarily. So we tack a poster to a board, or tack a seam temporarily with big stitches which can easily be taken out again. There are tin-tacks, thumb-tacks and carpet-tacks, all smallish examples of their kind. We also have the derived sense of something that has been added as an afterthought, tacked on as an addition or rider to something else more substantial. There are related obsolete usages in, for example, coal-mining, a tack there being a temporary prop or scaffolding. Our other main sense of the adjective tacky seems to be derived from this slightly derogatory meaning, referring to some stuff, such as paint, glue or printing ink, which is not quite dry and which tends to stick, but only lightly.
So there is a recurring undercurrent in these senses of something insubstantial or temporary. Could it be that the peculiarly American sense of tacky grew out of this feeling of lack of substance or value? It would not be so far fetched.
There are, of course, other senses of tack, of which the one relating to horse harness and the like seems to be an abbreviation of tackle, a word which derives from another Germanic root relating to any sort of equipment, as the OED comprehensively puts it, “apparatus, utensils, instruments, implements, appliances; equipment, furniture, gear”. It seems to have been used like our gadget, thingummy or gubbins: a generalised hand-waving kind of term. It was particularly applied to the cordage and other equipment of ships’ rigging, from which another sense of the abbreviated form tack was generated to mean the process of turning the ship’s head across the direction of the wind.
This maritime connection is suggested by some authorities as being the origin of that pair of nineteenth century words hard tack and soft tack, since both are naval terms: hard tack for ship’s biscuit and soft tack for bread. It could be that the other sense of something inferior attached to tack could also be playing a role, since they are basic rations which fill the stomach but do not engage the taste buds. But, just to complicate things further, the words tuck and tucker for food rations also seem to derive from the same Germanic original as tack, so there may be yet a third thread to take into account.
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