Hoping to be in some kind of tact

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Reader RP writes:

I happened to notice the following formation on the Guardian comment boards:

Its just possible that so long as Roma culture remains in some kind of tact that we may be the ones going to them in the future asking them for tips on how to live, how to survive.

So this person has parsed the word 'intact' as two words 'in tact' — which is not especially crazy, given that 'tact' is a common word — and assumed this allows modifying the word 'tact'.

As a faithful Language Logger I wasn't about to leave it there. I found plenty of hits for the following variants:

"in complete tact" - "all welds are in complete tact"; "Binding of the book is in complete tact"; "keeping the ankle and foot in complete tact"; …
"in good tact" – "Porcelain wheels are in good tact"; "The binding is in good tact"; "paint and sticker still in good tact"; …
"in perfect tact" – "It arrived very quickly and came in perfect tact"; "soundboard in perfect tact"; "The hard drive is still in perfect tact"; …
"in excellent tact" – "Game was in excellent tact!"; "…all pages are still in excellent tact"; "The sleeve is in excellent tact"; …

Apparent negative-valence examples seem instead to be mostly variants of "in poor/bad taste":

"in poor tact" – "What she did may have been in poor tact, but …"; "… the comment was in poor tact"; "The current article seems rather insulting and done in poor tact"; …
"in bad tact" – " I tend to consider that in bad tact"; "I think it was in bad tact to use your 'work' to do so" ; "So is it not in bad tact to organize a prayer vigil for Obamacare?"; …

But then there's this:

You see the Chanel woman said you can't make a judgment on foundation and say 'oh this foundation is rubbish it doesn't do anything for my skin when your skin is in bad tact in the first place, you have to get your skin in good tact before you can make a judgment on a product'

There seems to be a reasonable analogy between "in tact" and "in order" ("in good order", "in perfect order", "in excellent order", etc.), "in shape",  "in condition",  and so on — although in these cases the phrase with no modifier seems to have a somewhat different meaning.

Etymologically, the in- of intact is the latinate negative morpheme of inoffensive, incalculable, etc., rather than the locative morpheme of inquire, inculcate; and -tact is from the past participle tactus of tangere "touch", so that intact eymologically means "untouched".

But as RP observes, tact can also mean a "delicate sense of what is fitting and proper in dealing with others", and it's a natural step to re-analyze intact as "in tact", generalizing the noun's meaning to something like "a fitting and proper condition".



16 Comments

  1. Rod Johnson said,

    August 28, 2012 @ 1:08 pm

    I don't think tact will really graduate to word status until we see it used without in: "The tact of this car is excellent" or "the owner has maintained the tact of this item perfectly". I'm not sure how to search for such things or I would.

  2. Brian said,

    August 28, 2012 @ 1:11 pm

    in-fucking-tact?

    [(myl) Not relevant, since any polysyllable of the appropriate shape can get that sort of infixation, whether or not a morpheme boundary is (folk-) etymologically present.]

  3. Hamilton-Lovecraft said,

    August 28, 2012 @ 1:53 pm

    A large, very stoned gentleman once bounced his moped off the hood of my car; in his efforts to avoid any interaction with insurance companies or the police, he wrote me a statement declaring he had suffered no injuries, using the phrasing "I, So-and-so, am in full tact" (rather than "fully intact").

  4. Robert Coren said,

    August 28, 2012 @ 1:56 pm

    Presumably "in poor tact" = "in poor taste" is influenced by the idea of lacking tact.

  5. Tim said,

    August 28, 2012 @ 2:05 pm

    I wonder if there are large differences in these reanalyses between different varieties of English. The only English-speaking country I've lived in is the US, and this reanalysis sounds very wrong to me. On the other hand, I speak with the oft-derided "whole nother". When I search COCA for "nother" I find 140 instances of "whole nother", whereas the BNC only gives me a few eye-dialect renderings of "'nother".

    Unfortunately, some quick searches didn't find me any good examples of this reanalysis of "intact", in either British or American Englishes.

  6. Rachel said,

    August 28, 2012 @ 2:39 pm

    I'm guessing that the meaning of 'tact' by itself is why this qualifies as an eggcorn.

  7. John Lawler said,

    August 28, 2012 @ 2:40 pm

    All the positive senses (in good/perfect/complete/excellent tact) refer to structural integrity, particularly in terms of assembled (often body) parts being arranged and connected properly. This is consistent with the etymology from Lat tangere/tactus to 'touch'. Constituents touch and are thereby connected with one another.

    This also suggests a perceptual (though not necessarily historical) relation to such words as tacky in That paint is still tacky, and perhaps to tack of horse tack, which is largely concerned with connecting riders firmly to horses.

    On the other hand, the negative senses (in poor/bad tact) refer to social rather than tactile contacts, and collisions with both of the words tact and taste collude to make this a quite different "touch" metaphor, maybe more like jabbing or jerking someone around.

    Amazingly, one also gets the adjective tacky here, in a negative sense, perfectly coherent with this social interpretation: That was a terribly tacky thing for him to do. Note that it doesn't need any negation or condemnation; tacky is pejorative all by itself in a social context.

  8. Being in tact : Leonardo Boiko’s background diary said,

    August 28, 2012 @ 2:40 pm

    [...] new developments in English these days! Not only there’s a novel vowel shift, but now we’re getting things like “in good tact”, “in poor tact”, “in some kind of tact”! This is very amusing. no [...]

  9. djs said,

    August 28, 2012 @ 3:17 pm

    My immediate association was a whole nother notion, I think.

  10. Theophylact said,

    August 28, 2012 @ 3:31 pm

    Maybe it's being used as a synonym for "fettle".

  11. Rachel said,

    August 28, 2012 @ 4:04 pm

    Thank you Theophylact. I am now feeling in fine tact.

  12. johnesh said,

    August 29, 2012 @ 2:42 am

    I've always considered "a whole nother" a form of infixation (just like "in-fucking-tact", come to think of it).

    [(myl) No -- "whole nother", "complete nother", etc., come from re-analysis of "an other" as "a nother". No infixation involved.]

  13. tk said,

    August 29, 2012 @ 6:45 am

    re:
    "in complete tact" – "all welds are in complete tact"; "Binding of the book is in complete tact"; "keeping the ankle and foot in complete tact"; …

    How about "…in complete (con)tact…" ?

  14. Brad Daniels said,

    August 29, 2012 @ 1:26 pm

    Interestingly, I saw similar results looking for strings like "in complete tack" or "in tack." The results are a bit noisy, though, dues to things like "found dead in tack shop" or "will result in complete tack reduction."

    I was also surprised to find that COCA isn't much use in a case like this. Is there something similar to COCA which includes all text on the web? I'd love to do an "in [*j*] tack" type of query on the whole web.

  15. ACW said,

    August 30, 2012 @ 3:39 pm

    I'm arriving a little late to the party, but I'm getting a few Google for the negative form "out of tact"; they're hard to find because they are swamped by instances of the same collocation meaning "for reasons of politeness" or "with supply of politeness exhausted". But here, for example, is an amateur music critic complaining that "the melody is out of tact".

  16. Eric P Smith said,

    August 30, 2012 @ 8:09 pm

    A similar re-analysis was achieved by my elderly Aunt Babbie in the 1950s. Of a friend, she declared:

    "She's got acute appendicitis. A very cute appendicitis."

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