tact vs tack and the Decline and Fall of Practically Everything

Joe Scarborough, a libertarian/conservative talkshow host and former congressional representative, said in a very entertaining interview today on npr that a certain “tact” would not work, another “tact” was necessary. Clearly, the words ’tack’ and ’tact’ are very close in sound. ’Tack’ is a technical term used frequently by sailors but not that frequently by other people. So it’s easy to see/hear how the two words could be confused.

The point of this is that we have a wordsmith, a talkshow host, who is a former member of Congress… clearly someone of whom we would expect a high level of language use. Yet here he is, mixing up these two words much as people mix up ’flout’ and ’flaunt’. How do we explain this?

The clear explanation is that over time, words change both meaning and form. The historical record is clear on that. Words that are a bit technical, archaic, idiomatic or idiosyncratic, are vulnerable. How many times have we heard “it’s a hard road to hoe” by someone who has never hoed a row in a garden or agricultural field. We lose these words sometimes by dropping them altogether and having to find them in historical and etymological dictionaries, or we merge them with other words. We may not lose them at all but only change their meanings. This process has been described by uncountable linguists and philologists, but for some reason I like Einar Haugen’s account in The Scandanavian Languages.

The other ’tack’ in explaining this is to eschew ’tact’ and label Joe of Morning Joe a barbarian who doesn’t know his own language. That is the path of the Grammar Maven (in response to a post on a Listserv where I used the word ’maven’ and ’grammar’ after Steven Pinker, I must point out that the word ’maven’ is indeed a Yiddish word meaning expert, but here it is used ironically) who simply states, “What do you expect in a society that has been going downhill since – ” (pick your date: 1066, 1492, 1914, 1945, 1965, 2001…..). According to this scenario, the Ancient Romans (excluding women, slaves, working people, real barbarians and other assorted low-lifes) spoke language as it was meant to be spoke. [sic] OR some other group such as the people of Victorian England or of Shakespeare’s day or the Founding Fathers did so. Reading The Federalist Papers and other works of those founders of our country, you do have to be impressed.

But to elevate their speech to the heights of worship and derogate any deviation condemns all of us who write contemporary English. We cannot match that, we are not worthy of worship. Yet that is exactly what the Mavens wish for: a world in which only they have the keys to the Standards and the rest of them have to worship THEM, the Mavens. And it is a simplistic world, one like that of the English aristocrat who has no need of style manuals or dictionaries b/c the language lives at its best in his mouth – the manuals simply hope to ape the speech of the aristocrat, whose language is naturally the best. If you want to know the best English, ask the Maven.

But then this The Decline and Fall of Everything flourishes everywhere b/c it puts the Jeremiah in a position of power, he hopes. If he sees all that’s wrong, then he is the one to fix it. All power to the Ayatollah!

So either we accept that many educated, accomplished and eloquent persons like Morning Joe will commit solecisms or we throw up our hands and turn ourselves over to the Mavens.

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