Thursday, February 16, 2017

Language of Confusion: Tactful

I can’t believe I haven’t done the word tact before. Not that it’s some major important word or anything. It just really feels like I’ve done it. Is this déjà vu? Déjà écrit?

Just plain tact showed up in the mid seventeenth century as a sense of touch or feeling, more literal as opposed to the more figurative sense it has today. It comes from the classical Latin tactus, touch, so no big surprises there. It does come from tangere, to touch, which is the origin word for tangent which was kind of surprising. There’s no real reason as to why tangent changed so much, but apparently tangentem also means tangent so that weirdness goes all the way back. Tactile also comes from this line, via the French tactile and Latin tactilis, of touch. Since something that you can touch is tangible, that’s where we get that word. Damn, this makes tangent mean even less sense.

There are plenty of other tact words out there. Tactics showed up in the early seventeenth century, a hundred and forty years before tactic. They both come from the Latin tactica, which comes from the Greek taktike techne, which literally means regular art. I’m not even sure how to react to that. It is related to taktikos, regular or arranged, which can relate to war tactics, so that’s where that comes from. In any case, you’ll notice that tactic doesn’t come from the same word as tact. At least, not in Latin. They are related earlier, in Proto Indo European, where taktikos and tangere come from tag-, to set in order. Well, that’s where the regular part comes from.

Finally, there are the words that end in tact. Like intact. I didn’t mean to do that, it was just a coincidence. It showed up in the mid fifteenth century coming from the classical Latin intactus, untouched. That’s because in- is a weird prefix that can mean not, like it does here, or into. Since tactus is touched, then we have untouched, and something intact is I guess at least metaphorically untouched. Next is contact, which showed up in the early seventeenth century from the Latin contactus, which means touching. Or, you know, contact. Con- means together here, so touching together. Yeah, kind of ended on a well, duh note here.



  1. Regular art? That is odd. Guess I know what to call the generic paintings one sees in hotels.

  2. I feel like I read you doing it before.
    But I don't remember any of what was in the post?
    It's early.

  3. Since tangent in math means the line that just touches a circle...

    So, yesterday I was helping out in an 8th grade English class. They start with "Daily Latin", and the root of the day was "err". They get the definition and a couple examples (error and erratic). Then the teacher asked for another example, and a kid came up with extraterrestrial. And the teacher went with it! I inwardly rolled my eyes. Deep sigh.

  4. Okay, war tactics as arranged art makes some kind of sense.

  5. Just when I think things are making sense, we get the regular art thing happening?


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