Saturday, February 2, 2019

Tacky -- What's in a Word?


When corresponding recently with a friend regarding amaryllis, I mentioned that, growing up in Florida where a neighbor had a whole straggling hedge-like row of the big flowers, I had always thought of them as somewhat tacky and had only come to appreciate them after moving to a place where they couldn't thrive outside and weren't so . . . well, common. On the contrary, now I see amaryllis as the spectacular blooms they are.

And that got me thinking about the word 'tacky.'  In my youth, it was used frequently, mainly by my mother and those of her generation but later --  say beginning in high school, by me and my peers. Often with a very exaggerated drawl -- "Oh, lord,  that's taaacky!"

Dictionaries say it means cheap or vulgar, and that's pretty close to the way I guess we used it.  But not quite.  Tacky could be as innocuous as, for example, wearing too much makeup or a rhinestone bracelet to school (it would be fine at a semi-formal  or formal dance. Unless the makeup was of the Amy Winehouse school -- that would have been tacky.) Or  breaking any of the unspoken fashion rules -- which differed every year and within every group of friends.

Pierced ears were tacky. Also ankle bracelets. Fluffy dice hanging from the rear view mirror. Tattoos were pretty much unheard of except for service men, criminals, and circus people. And they were tacky.

There was also tacky behavior -- and this generally meant rudeness or breaking the 'code' of the group. Flirting with a friend's boyfriend was tacky; going on a date with him was trashy.

Did or do did any of you use the word 'tacky' in this sense? And if so, for what? Is this mainly a Southern American usage.

I started trying to think of things that I would call tacky today -- I surprised myself by even using the word in my email to the friend -- and realized the whole modern concept of doing things ironically muddies the waters.  As does sentiment.

For example: If I made an arrangement using the cut off pineapple top above, would I be doing it ironically or would it be just plain tacky? 

I always incorporate some skulls into my Fall décor -- tacky or ironic? Or spiritual? (Pretty sure my mother would call it tacky.)

A local fellow puts out quirky displays  -- tacky? Or folk art?

And some of my most treasured Christmas ornaments would probably be considered tacky if not for the memories.

"Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful." William Morris said. And it's a pretty good statement, especially since there's a lot of wiggle room in that word 'believe.' But it leaves out those things that are neither useful nor beautiful but are, nonetheless, heart warming or personally meaningful or just plain fun to look at.

But maybe those last three categories fit into 'useful.'

Whatever, I can see Marie Kondo making little headway with me.


Thérèse said...

Excellent analysis! The meaning of "tacky" has moved forward.
What about the word "kitsch"? Perhaps much more complicated after having read about its meaning for Milan Kundera.

Anvilcloud said...

I think the skull and "meet me in heaven" satisfy my concept of tacky.

KarenB said...

Growing up, in DC, Connecticut and Wisconsin, we used tacky pretty much the same way you did. Now, there is a fine line between tacky and kitsch, or tacky and folk charm, and as for ironic use - I suppose that's in the eye of the producer.

Now those blow up Christmas decorations that people have in their front lawn . . . I think they are tacky but can be fun to see in other people's lawns.

NCmountainwoman said...

It's all in the eye of the beholder. Always was. Forever will be.

Sandra Parshall said...

Many people are quick to put negative labels on the behavior of others. We have neighbors who leave their outdoor Christmas lights up -- and turn them on them at night -- until the end of cold weather. Is that tacky? I think they're pretty and cheerful, and if they give pleasure to the homeowners, that's wonderful. If we had a homeowners assn, those people would be fined and threatened for not following "the rules." At this late stage of my life, I have learned that such minor things aren't worth anyone's concern.

Judith said...

I grew up down in Buncombe county in the fifties and sixties. We used the term "ticky-tacky" to describe much the same things.

Barbara Rogers said...

My life lets me wonder about word usage, but seldom know a correct definition. I don't think I know at all how to use ironic to describe anything except a literary description. But I do think those who wish to be superior or more sophisticated will consider the more common sides of life to be tacky. I used to like to avoid being tacky. Now I'm probably working towards it.