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Hard tack

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.”

October 2011 Issue

Semper Ubi Sub Ubi


So I turned on the local news the other night to see when it would stop raining. I wasn’t really paying close attention; I actually had my back to the TV and was writing something. After a few minutes, however, it percolated into my frontal cortex that the people on the tee-vee were very excited about something, so I turned around and noticed that emblazoned across the screen in flashing orange was FEROCIOUS WILD ANIMALS ON THE LOOSE — RUN FOR YOUR LIVES! or words to that effect. Turns out that some … jerk, to put it mildly … had been keeping fifty or so lions, tigers, mountain lions, cheetahs, wolves, grizzly bears, black bears and monkeys, plus a giraffe, in tiny cages on his “wildlife preserve” west of Zanesville. And now, for whatever reason, he had chosen a dark, rainy evening to turn them all loose and then shoot himself. You saw all this as the top story on CNN, the BBC, et al., I’m sure.

The particular problem for us at that moment was that the “preserve” was just about 25 miles due east of us. That sounds like a long way away, but it’s all open, mostly flat country around here, and the authorities seemed a bit unclear as to exactly how long these animals had been loose — at least five or six hours at that point. Still, it seemed unlikely that they would make it this far, or it did until the news helpfully reported that there had been credible sightings in southern Licking County, about seven miles away.

So it’s a dark and stormy night, and we’re sitting in the proverbial isolated farmhouse, with lots of big windows and flimsy doors, surrounded by cornfields and our own woods backing up on a few hundred more acres of cornfields. I have already learned to be careful when I take the dogs out at night because the coyotes around here are numerous and aggressive. And there have been consistent and credible reports in recent years of large cats, probably escapees from just such private zoos, being spotted (and in one case photographed) in our area.

And now we apparently had a wave of ticked-off tigers, grizzlies and lions headed our way. What I wanted at that moment was a bunch of floodlights and an AK-47. What we had were two arthritic dogs, both largely deaf, and a whole lot of useless but no doubt tasty cats. Around 2 am it occurred to me that for any large and hungry carnivore downwind of us, our house would smell like a big box of food. And these critters were accustomed to being around (and fed by) people, so the natural shyness that keeps coyotes (mostly) at bay would be, as HR Haldeman would say, inoperable.

Continue reading this post » » »

Catch 22

Like turning on the TV to find out why the power’s off.

Dear Word Detective: What does “Catch 22″ actually mean? — Faith Daniels.

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow, Creeps in this petty pace from day to day, To the last syllable of recorded time; And all our yesterdays ….

Oh hi! I was just brushing up on my Macbeth and thinking about your question. I knew I had answered it before, and not too long ago, I thought. Then I discovered that “not too long ago” was circa 1995. Gosh. On the other hand, intimations of mortality aside, I’m glad you asked it, because in the intervening years no one else has, and it’s an interesting story.

I’m not sure that you meant to, but you’ve asked your question in an intriguing way. The “actual meaning” of “Catch 22″ seems to be undergoing some dilution in the mass media these days. A recent article in The Times of India was titled “Catch 22: Caught between mother and wife,” and offered some rather retrograde and sitcom-ish advice to men having trouble achieving domestic balance (e.g., “Do not praise the one’s cooking in front of the other”). Elsewhere in the media, “Tibetan MPs caught in a ‘Catch-22′ situation” (Indian Express) outlines some difficulties posed by the Dalai Lama’s recent decision to retire. One article describes a possible conflict, the other assesses an apparent impasse, but neither situation fits the original definition of a “Catch 22.”

As defined by the Oxford English Dictionary, “Catch 22″ means “a supposed law or regulation containing provisions which are mutually frustrating; a set of circumstances in which one requirement, etc., is dependent upon another, which is in turn dependent upon the first.” One example that popped into my mind when I first explained “Catch 22″ was needing to have a driver’s license in order to get to the Department of Motor Vehicles to take your driver’s license exam. Another was needing to be rich in order to hire enough lawyers, etc., to avoid paying taxes and be rich. Although “Catch 22″ has come to be used in a more general sense to mean “an absurd predicament” or “a tricky and frustrating rule or restriction” (such as having to pay taxes on money you withdraw from your retirement fund to use to pay taxes), the true “Catch 22″ presents not just an annoying impediment, but a solid brick wall.

“Catch 22″ is one of those rare colloquial phrases whose origin is known with absolute certainty. It was coined by the American novelist Joseph Heller in 1961 as the title of his novel “Catch 22,” based on his experiences as a US bomber pilot in Europe in World War II. The central character in the book is the B-25 bombardier Yossarian, whose all-too-accurate perception of the futility and insanity of war introduces him to what Heller dubbed “Catch 22″ (“catch” being used here in the sense of a “snag” or “hidden trap” in military regulations). As Heller explains it, “There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr [an especially hapless pilot] was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he were sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to.”

“Catch 22″ the novel was a huge hit in the 1960s, and remains one of the seminal late 20th century works of literature. The phrase “Catch 22″ immediately entered the lexicon of a society beset by an increasingly Kafkaesque bureaucracy (“His Public Interest Group now finds itself in a Catch 22 situation. It cannot prove the device works without EPA funds, but EPA won’t grant the funds unless they prove the device works,” 1974), a plague of institutional illogic that computers have only worsened. Interestingly, the “22″ in the title was not Heller’s original choice; an early excerpt of the novel published in a magazine was actually titled “Catch 18,” but the publication of the very popular novel “Mila 18″ by Leon Uris during the same period necessitated the change to “Catch 22.”