Why I love subtitles: tact vs. tack


The other night, the family and I were watching a film. I like to turn the subtitles on when we take a movie home. As a matter of fact, it’s becoming progressively more difficult for me to watch film in the theater because I so enjoy having that option. Diction, my darlings, is a dying art. 

While watching this seemingly insignificant action film with the subtitles on, one of the characters said a very common phrase, “I’ll try another tack.”

Now, I don’t know about you, but I had always- phonetically- thought the phrase was, “I’ll try another tact.” So, when I saw the word tack, I found my mind wondering from the action (this is not wholly uncommon for me) to a question. Tack or tact? 

Well, here we go down the philological rabbit hole again. 

Unfamiliar with the Sherman Brothers or  'Protocoligorically Correct' from the musical, The Slipper and the Rose? I offer you this video.  

Wouldn’t you think it was tact as in try another tactic? Well, it’s not. As the song says, we must be etymologically correct- well, it’s protocoligorically, but I think the Sherman Brothers would applaud the segue way there; they had such a whimsical sense of humor. Back to tact. Tact deals with touch, as in tactile, evolving in meaning to include a person’s sensitivity toward other people or situations. 

So, the answer, dear readers, is tack! And the reason for this is equally interesting. 

It’s nautical. I adore anything nautical. It might be because I have been in love with Captain Wentworth since my first reading of Persuasion or because I myself did marry a nautical man (who will recite a wonderful nautical poem about how long he's been a sailor...), but regardless, the sea calls to me and anything derived from it fascinates. 

What do you think of when you hear the word tack? Me, I think of the push pins that I use to stick things onto my To Do or Inspiration boards. In a broader sense, I suppose you could include a variety of small nails used to hold up very light things such posters or calendars. 

However, the word tack has a long history. Within the actual dictionary entry- the first noun in the OED- there are four main qualitative points for the word: 
    I. That which fastens or attaches
    II. Nautical and derived senses
    III. That which is tacked on or appended
    IV. As a quality
Within these four ordinations, there are multiple subordinations and sub definitions. For the purpose of the idiom, the second ordination is the one which sheds the most light.

Within the three subordinations of nautical and derived senses, we gain understanding of how tack evolved from the concept of tacking or affixing something to actually setting a particular course. 

The poem every sailor knows...

Before the advent of the first steam powered vessel by Robert Fulton in 1808 (which did, in fact, still have rigging), every sea going vessel was navigated exclusively via sails, harnessing its power from how the rigging was secured to capture the wind and set the course. The term tack refers to the line, rope, or chain and hooks used to affix the lower windward corners of sails to the sides of the ship. Nautically speaking, a ship is usually said to be on the starboard tack or the port tack, as the wind comes from the starboard direction or the port direction. (A quick little note on how I remember which is which when the husband references these words: port has four letters; so does left. Port side is the left side of the ship when you are facing forward toward the bow.) 

When the tack is set in a particular manner, it has to do with sails being rigged in certain configurations so that they allow a specific course to be charted. The current understanding of trying a different tack came out of this. The nautical term made its way into mainline culture until tack came to mean a line of conduct or a new course of action. It’s that cool? I think that’s cool. 

Have you ever come across a phrase or idiom that has made you question its origin? Or is there a phrase or idiom that you know the origin of? Please, share. I'd love to hear about it.