Secret (Word) Origins

Choices, including word-related ones, define a person. A decision’s “how” and “why” offer insight into who we are. I tend to use terms based on accuracy and comfort in a conversation. Some part of me asks, “Will this person understand me?” when a sentence leaves my mouth. Depending on how fast or relaxed a dialogue is, I might repetitively use ideas to get to a point. Other times, when clarity or comfort isn’t enough, I hammer a word into a particular sentence or part of speech until it conveys what I mean. This background helps explain why Tangents “has been pinballing around in my skull for years.”

I first encountered the term in late 1997. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “the definitive record of the English language” (just ask their webpage), “tangent” can be used as an adjective, noun, or intransitive verb. My focus for blog-related purposes rests on the noun, which originated in the late 16th century. It stems from the “Latin līnea tangens tangent or touching line…[the] French…tangent…[and] German tangente.” No, I didn’t develop deep love for linguistics while in the eighth grade, but I did have math class. That’s how the term first entered my vocabulary. In the mathematical sense, the OED defines tangent as

the ratio of this line to the radius, or (equivalently, as a function of the angle) the ratio of the side of a right-angled triangle opposite the given angle (if acute) to that of the side opposite the other acute angle (the tangent of an obtuse angle being numerically equal to that of its supplement, but of opposite sign)…[or] a straight line which touches a curve (or curved surface), i.e. meets it at a point and being produced does not (ordinarily) intersect it at that point.

Still here? Even if you adore math (you might’ve guessed I prefer words to numbers), those two definitions may’ve hurt your head and ears if you tried to read them aloud. These interpretations still don’t accurately explain “tangents” as they apply to me.

Photo by mrpolyonymous.

The adjective/noun definition the OED designates “B.1.c” seems more appropriate for my needs:

chiefly fig[urative]…esp[ecially] in phrases (off) at, in, upon a tangent, i.e. off or away with sudden divergence, from the course or direction previously followed; abruptly from one course of action, subject, thought, etc., to another.

It’s the closest we get to the reason I love the term. This is all a verbose preamble to say: like many things I enjoy, it started with a comic book.

DC Comics first published nine issues titled Tangent Comics in 1997. The company released all of the books in a single week in place of their standard monthly publications. Dan Jurgens, a cartoonist most famous to younger-me for his Superman work, established the series’ concept. He dedicated the idea to science fiction and DC editor Julius Schwartz, who reinvigorated the company in 1956 by spearheading the publication of Showcase #4. That issue resurrected the superhero genre for DC by creating Barry Allen, the company’s second character to use the name Flash. Beyond similar speed-related powers, Allen had little connection to the original WWII-era Flash who used the same heroic identity.

Art by Dan Jurgens. Copyright DC Comics.
Art by Dan Jurgens. Copyright DC Comics.

In Tangent Comics: The Atom #1, the line’s cornerstone book, editor Eddie Berganza explains Jurgens

proposed to give creators the freedom to imagine new version[s] of [DC’s] characters free from the shackles of all previous continuity, with one condition: they had to use an existing name…The goal…was to create characters and an entire world from scratch.

For example, DC’s first superhero to bear the name Atom was a diminutive powerhouse fighter in the 1940s. During Schwartz’s tenure at the publisher, a new Atom was created: one who could shrink to microscopic sizes. Eventually, both Atoms met and existed in the same universe. In Jurgens’ Tangent reality, however, this new Atom had no connection to the previous heroes or their world. Here he possessed radiation-based powers that transformed him into a Superman-level icon.

Similar to Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen, Jurgens carried the “entire world from scratch” approach to its logical completion. This new universe, he later explained, included “economic, geographic[,] and political landscapes…defined by the superhero community.” The presence of the Atom and other superpowered beings naturally affected everything from board games, recording groups, films, space exploration, war, and technology. I never encountered world building on such a large scale before Tangent Comics. Consider my eighth-grade mind blown. From that week on, “tangent” became a recurring word in my vocabulary.

My actual use of the term  evolved over the years. I hadn’t thought about it until college. I’d review classmates’ papers and mark paragraphs as “tangential” when it didn’t fit an academic paper’s argument. (Hopefully my writing style here can be forgiven for my lack of precise focus…after all, you were warned from the beginning.) Said classmates would often ask, “What does writing have to do with math?” in response. I’d laugh and recall the cover featuring Jurgens’ Atom.

After college graduation, “tangents” assumed an entirely different meaning for me. I dubbed my long rambling emails with that title. They were sent to close friends in a panic between midnight and 3 AM while dealing with fear, loss, and anxiety. My friends graciously indulged my semi-connected thoughts as I attempted to understand just what the hell was going on in my life around 2007. These correspondences grew and carried over into late night bar conversations whenever they were in town. Tangents helped me survive and make sense of the world.

What does “tangents” say about me? I’m a nerd who likes different writing styles capable of branching into several directions. Over the years, I always returned to the idea of using it as a title for a blog. It feels right. It feels like me. It gives me permission to create a space to write whatever I want.

Introduction to Tangential Writing

I lied. Somewhat.

The fact I enjoyed writing in high school and college shouldn’t surprise anyone (meaning the four of you actually reading this post). Criticism, fiction, and creative nonfiction writing fascinated me. They offered a structured outlet to get my thoughts into the world with enough wriggle room for creativity. Reading, knowing, and writing those genres brought a lot of frustration and joy to my incredibly boring life. I could argue about the symbolism in “The Metamorphosis,” create a meandering conversation between old high school friends turned college rivals, or have a completely honest conversation about myself with Peter Parker. Whether or not I succeeded in stringing words together into coherent sentences is for others to judge. All I knew for sure was that I loved it. Eventually I thought maybe I’d make a career out of wrapping words around ideas.

What the hell was I thinking?

Friends who knew about my passion (that’s you four again) regularly asked, “How’s the writing going?” after college. The lie started there. “Slowly,” I’d say. “I have a few ideas,” I’d say. “I’m jotting stuff down when it comes to me,” I’d say. All of these responses were true and not true. Idle thoughts and notions – even the title of this blog – have been pinballing around in my skull for years, but I never truly made an effort to nurture them. Didn’t anyone else understand there wasn’t any time? I was too busy eating breakfast, going to work, eating lunch, going back to work, driving home from work, eating dinner, exercising, showering, feeding the cat, having a life, taking out the trash, watching TV, paying bills, reading books, washing dishes, and…

Excuses. Every reason I had for not writing was simply an excuse that I did nothing about. Along the sprawling path of the past decade a few life events legitimately prevented me from writing. Still, those should’ve just been other obstacles to overcome, not more excuses. Writers write. I wasn’t a writer. Well, that’s also a bit of a lie.

After graduating in 2006, I looked for a job, got a job, found another job, and discovered a career in the same orbit of wrapping words around ideas. I still wasn’t on the right planet, though. Said career is almost a spin on a Faustian pact: my spiritual soul seemed to be doing just fine, but my creative one was suffering. My work involves a lot of technical writing, editing, and managing. I’m very good at it and like the work, but too often I’d use the exhaustion of responsibility as a reason to avoid my own writing again.

Despite however dormant my creative itch was – or how lazy I seemed to be – I still wanted to write. Luckily someone else interceded. I’ve had the pleasure of occasionally contributing to Philly Beer Scene. There I’ve enjoyed writing about beer-flavored ice cream, the archaeology of Ancient Ales, and an increasingly crowded beer market. Seeing someone else refer to me as “writer” made me realize what I fraud I had been.

A writer writes. It was then that I decided to write more. I write and edit on a daily basis, but I wanted to write for me. That’s something I missed…something I loved. That’s the purpose of this blog. Tangents’ layout will be a work-in-progress, much like the writing itself. I’m still finding my way around WordPress. Join me as I most likely fail in front of a live studio audience. At least by failing, I’ll know I’ve tried. My goal is to post something twice a month. I don’t have a particular structure for genres (why not all of them?) and when…but I have a few ideas. I mean it.