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.

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Patrick Ridings

Patrick Ridings attempts to remain creative by writing whenever possible. His first published work appeared in Philly Beer Scene's June/July 2012 issue. Mr. Ridings believes all writer bios read like Stan Lee's Dr. Doom dialogue from 1962.

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