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13 June 2010

Monday's word - Tacky

All this month I'm at Coffee Time Romance 'special interests' section, talking about my other interest, horses, so I thought I'd repost an ariticle from a few months back, since it relates, somewhat obliquely, to horses and tack.saddlery.

Tacky. Sometimes this word is used to describe a piece of writing, or sometimes a film or a program on television which is a bit flimsy or not well put together.

But where does the word come from?

There is a suggestion on Michael Quinion's site that it may have come from quilting. "By comparison to a handmade quilt, the workmanship of a cheap quilt made by the process called tacking may be considerably below standard. It is tacked together; therefore itis "tacky" by comparison..."

"...we don't know its ultimate origin for certain, though the chance of its being related to the embroidery sense of "tacking"seems remote. We might instead guess that it's related to the other sense of the adjective - for something, such as paint or varnish, that isn't quite dry and so is still slightly sticky. There's no evidence for that, either...

''...It appeared first around 1800 as a noun, variously spelled as "tackie" or "tackey". The earliest example is this:

'At some places, you are thus asked, in local phrase, to truck or trade for a horse, a cow, or a little tackie, a term which signifies a poney, or little horse, of low price.' [Communications Concerning the Agriculture and Commerce of America, by William Tathan, 1800.]

The horse sense continues in the name of the Carolina Marsh Tacky,a survivor of a breed of horse brought to the Americas by Spanishexplorers. Such horses have existed for centuries as semi-wild herds in the marshes of coastal South Carolina and Georgia.

The link with horses might lead to the idea that it has something to do with "tack" for horse harness, but the one can't have led to the other, not least because "tack" in this sense dates only from the 1920s (it's an abbreviation of "tackle").

Web sites about the breed sometimes suggest that "tacky" is from an English word meaning "cheap" or "common", but it's the other way round - the adjective "tacky" in this sense certainly derives from the name for the horse. The link seems to have been the idea of a lack of breeding, since the horses weren't considered to be of high quality (one writer called them "scrubby"). Later in the century, "tacky" became a term for a "poor white" inhabitant of the southern states.

The adjective, enlarging on this sense of "ill-bred", began to be written down in the 1860s and has been in use ever since, though the full flowering of its popularity came only in the 1970s and 1980s. It has since spread throughout the English-speaking world..."

So what do you think? Does the word 'tacky' derive from quilting, paint or varnish that's not quite dry, or our rather 'overtacked' little horse in the picture. What do you think?

And please join me at Coffee Time Romance on Wednesday, if you can, when I'll be chatting all day at my FORUM there.

*World Wide Words is copyright (c) Michael Quinion 2010. All rights reserved. The Words Web site is at http://www.worldwidewords.org/