10 Tacky Terms
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:
The connotations of this adjectival form of flash are of fleeting, superficial attractiveness and showy, tasteless fashion and/or fashion accessories.
The origin of this word meaning “vivid, bright, flashy” is unknown; it may come from a word meaning “to stare.”
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.”
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.)
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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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