Dear Word Detective: It’s the puzzled sailors again. What is the significance of the “tack” in “hard tack” and “soft tack”? The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) turned up the hated words “Origin obscure,” but I hold out hope that you might dig something up. — Elizabeth Lightwood.
This is a question guaranteed to make readers grateful for whatever they had for breakfast this morning. “Hard tack” (also found in the forms “hardtack” and “hard-tack”) is a unleavened biscuit or large cracker, usually about three inches square, made from just flour and water, sometimes with a bit of salt thrown in. “Hard tack” is (or has been) also known as “pilot bread” or “pilot biscuits” (referring to the “pilot” of a ship, a specialist who guides ships through congested harbors, etc.), “ship biscuits,” “sea biscuits” and “sea bread,” as well as by many more colorful names invented by the soldiers and sailors who had to face “hard tack” as their daily meal.
“Hard tack” first appeared in print in English in 1836, but similar bread was a staple ration of armies and navies around the world from at least the time of the Roman Empire until canning and other food preservation technologies were developed. The advantage of hard tack is that, if kept dry, it can be stored for literally decades and still be edible (to the extent that it ever was). This made it ideal for long sea voyages and armies in the field, and legend has it that hard tack left over from the US Civil War was re-issued to troops in the Spanish-American War in 1898, more than thirty years after it was baked. To make hard tack more palatable, soldiers and sailors (one is tempted to call them “victims”) often crumbled the biscuits into coffee, water or soup, or, if meat and vegetables were available, used it to make a stew called “lobscouse.” According to Wikipedia, hard tack is still manufactured by several companies, and remarkably popular in Canada, Alaska and Hawaii. Go figure. Maybe it goes well with Spam.
The “hard” in “hard tack” is easy to explain. The biscuits were also known as “tooth breakers” (a softer version called “soft tack” or “Captain’s bread” was reserved for higher-ranking personnel), and in the 19th century British Navy hard tack was also known as “pantile” or “Liverpool pantile,” “pantile” being a ceramic roofing tile.
The “tack” in “hard tack” and “soft tack” is a bit more mysterious, but the explanation probably lies in one of two possibilities. One is that the “tack” in “hard tack” is simply the noun “tack” in a derivative sense of “strength, substance, solidity.” Our English noun “tack” comes from Germanic roots with the general sense of “nail” (thus “tack” in the “carpet tack” sense), and has long been used in various senses to mean “that which holds securely” or, as a quality possessed by a thing or person, “adherence” or “endurance” (“There is no tack in such a one, he is not to be trusted,” 1884). Since expressions such as “to hold tack,” meaning “to be strong,” were common in the 19th century, it seems plausible that the “tack” in “hard tack” is a reference to its prodigious solidity. Hard tack is nothing if not strong.
It’s also been suggested, however, that the “tack” in “hard tack” is a short form of “tackle,” in the sense of “equipment” or “necessary gear” (as in “fishing tackle,” etc.). “Tackle” itself comes from Germanic roots meaning “rigging of a ship” (and may be connected to our friend “tack” in the “fasten” sense), and the theory here is that “hard tack” got its name because it was standard shipboard fare, i.e., a necessary (and inevitable) bit of nautical “equipment.” One argument in favor of this theory is the fact that “tackle” was also used in 19th century slang to mean “food” in general (“Do you think ladies usually eat that stodgy tackle?” 1900), so “hard tack” might have simply been another way to say “hard food.”