The word tacky
used to denote something of poor taste dates from the mid-1800's in the United States
. Its exact origin is not known though two possible paths to this meaning have been suggested. The first is tied to the definitions of the word tack
to mean anything from a push pin
to a temporary set of scaffolding
. The underlying meaning thought of something temporary with very little value may have spun out to be used for an action that had little value
. Similarly around this time, cheap bread used to feed those on-board ship were referred to as hard tack
or soft tack
, and though they filled the stomach, they offered little in the way of nutrition or substance. This too could have been the reason for the use of the word in its present form.
Having grown up in the southeastern United States, the word tacky to mean something of poor taste has long been part of my vocabulary. In the land of white gloves, cotillions, and Spanish moss, the word carries with it not just a meaning of being in poor taste, but also directly reflects upon the person's character and upbringing. It is poor taste to fart in an elevator, but it would not necessarily be considered tacky. However, an infant with pierced ears being rolled through the Piggly Wiggly would often leave in its wake a commentary of "Well, that is just tacky."
So strong is the social undertone of the word and the force of it, that for many years growing up, I had a hard time understanding what was the characteristic that made something tacky. It seemed in fact that the word itself was almost undefinable except by itself. It was rather like a baby bird flying - I just knew that while one neighbor might have had sixty yard gnomes that trashed up her garden, she was just eccentric, but the guy down the street with the black "lawn jockey" was just tacky.