10 Tacky Terms

By Mark Nichol

The English language teems with terminology for referring to ostentation or bad taste, or both. Here are ten words that help readers imagine imagery that they perhaps would rather not think about:

1. Flashy

The connotations of this adjectival form of flash are of fleeting, superficial attractiveness and showy, tasteless fashion and/or fashion accessories.

2. Garish

The origin of this word meaning “vivid, bright, flashy” is unknown; it may come from a word meaning “to stare.”

3. Gaudy

This term, with a disputed etymology (perhaps from the Latin word gaudium, meaning “joy,” or from a reference to trickery from the same source), means “tastelessly or extravagantly showy, outlandish.”

4. Kitschy

The direct borrowing of kitsch from German, as with the acquisition of many other loanwords, met a need: Although other terms are this list are near synonyms of kitsch, it’s difficult in English to capture the essence of kitsch without using the word. The term originated in response to efforts of the German middle class in the nineteenth century to emulate their social superiors through art and architecture; in many cases, they succeeded only in inferior imitation.

That sense has persisted intact for 150 years with the additional connotation of consumer items produced under the pretense that they are artistic creations but treated as commodities. (People who embrace the irony of appreciating kitsch and collect kitschy products are in effect partly legitimizing the items as art.)

5. Meretricious

This word has an etymological connection to merit, but its meaning is diametrically opposite. It stems from the Latin word for prostitute and, like merit, means “to earn.” It refers to a relationship based solely on exchange of value, and because of the superficial and ostentatious nature of practitioners of the oldest profession, it has acquired the additional connotation of cheap showiness. Meretricious is also sometimes used as a synonym for pretentious.

6. Purple

There’s an interesting line of connotation for this word: Because of the difficulty of obtaining purple dye from a certain shellfish in ancient times, it was reserved for royalty, and later was long limited to use by aristocratic classes. Thus, it came to be associated with those with very high social standing — and, naturally, their attendant sophistication. But the resulting association of the color with ostentatiousness led to a connotation of overbearing effort, especially in writing — hence, “purple prose.”

7. Sleazy

Two early meanings of this word are “hairy or fuzzy” and “flimsy,” but only the latter sense has survived, while still other connotations have come to dominate. The primary meanings now are “sexually provocative” or “of low quality,” the latter referring to both character and construction.

8. Tacky

This nineteenth-century slang term for a low-class person was extended to describe anything that is ill-bred, shabby, in poor taste, or cheaply constructed. It most often refers to a cheap taste in fashion or decor.

9. Tawdry

As is the case with purple, this term has made a downwardly mobile trajectory. According to tradition, Audrey, queen of a kingdom in what is now England, found religion late in life when she surmised that her vanity led to a deadly condition. The Catholic Church canonized her, and at an annual fair commemorating Saint Audry, cheap lace necklaces were sold in her honor. These came to be known as “’t Audrey’s lace,” later altered to “tawdry lace.” Now, tawdry is a synonym for cheap or showy. It has, however, also acquired a sense of “base, low, mean,” as in the cliché “a tawdry affair.”

10. Two-Bit

This adjective meaning “cheap” comes from the slang term for a twenty-five-cent piece. The reference originates with the real, a Spanish coin that could be divided into eight pieces (hence “pieces of eight” in pirate lore). Each bit was worth one-eighth of the coin’s value; transferred to American currency, two bits is worth a quarter. In either currency, two bits ain’t worth much.

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3 Responses to “10 Tacky Terms”

  • Ken Levin

    Ambiguity in Fox News headline: “Senator seeks to allow goose kills near NY airport after multiple collisions with planes.”
    A) you would think one collision would be sufficient.

    B) Interesting that Fox News should report on goose kills.

  • Meg Brookman

    Just want to reiterate that these words are pejorative. The origin of garish, for instance, could lead someone to think of it as a compliment rather than an insult. My father, a joker, tried to send one of his schoolkids over to another teacher, also a joker, to say, ‘Your tie is atrocious’. The kid, not familiar with the word but knowing Dad too well, declined.

  • venqax

    Or, why does the Senator have so many collisions with planes, and why do geese have to pay the price?

    It probably is newsworthy in this day and age of over-sensitivity toward development and “the wild” that anyone would be seeking official goose-murder just for the sake of peoples’ safety. Also, rememeber that by the standards of the US media, ANYTHING that happens in NY is important and compelling. In their world “sea to shining sea” means the Hudson to the East. And the shine is probably oil.

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