If you are not from the South, you probably don’t know the near-religious import of the word ‘tacky.’ Tacky is a word with consequences, a word to live by. For those of us who come from people who know tacky, we can instinctively break it down into two categories: Fun Tacky and That’s Just Tacky. (Also tacitly agreed to be Good Tacky and Bad Tacky.)
Fun Tacky is best translated as ‘over the top’. It usually applies to appearance or home décor. Not everyone agrees, of course, on where the top is and when exactly you’ve crossed over, but most of us acknowledge deep in our bones that when we’re indulging our magpie taste in rhinestone encrusted clothes, flowered shoes and pants, 4 shades of eye shadow, gallons of hairspray, and bright coral metallic handbags all on the same day, we might just have crossed the line a smidge from Fun to Fun Tacky. (If you don’t want to be the victim of Southern Lady Screaming, you probably would be wise NOT to point this out, at least not in public.)
A perfect example of Fun Tacky: years ago my father and step-mother lived in a neighborhood that was almost spookily friendly. Everyone liked each other, hung out with each other, had block parties with big barrels of gumbo, the kids played together, the men helped each other hang Christmas lights – it was a little Twilight Zone sometimes, but they formed genuine friendships so it couldn’t have all been just to freak out the college kids. Anyway, one year, shortly after moving to the Super Friendly ‘Hood, my dad and stepmom wanted to give every household on the block a Christmas gift. Nothing fancy, just a little token of affection. Their gift of choice was to give everyone a very special lawn ornament: a little grayish-khaki animal (skunk, bunny, whatever) for people’s flowerbeds. BUT. It wasn’t just a lawn ornament. It was a Zoo Doo lawn ornament. Made (sculptured? molded?) out of doo-doo, these lawn ornaments would ‘melt’ over time and fertilize your flowerbed. See? Tacky – because it’s a lawn ornament made out of doo-doo – but also Fun Tacky because it’s a lawn ornament that will make you laugh and eventually disappear on its way to helping your petunias thrive.
Now the difference between Fun Tacky and That’s Just Tacky is quite significant. That’s Just Tacky is usually a judgment directed more toward behavior than toward outward manifestations of taste. For instance, Dolly Parton is a famous example of a Southern Lady who frequently and skillfully indulges all the favorite stereotypes of Fun Tacky in her appearance, but would never be caught dead behaving in a That’s Just Tacky manner. Dolly is a Lady.
That’s Just Tacky is usually said about people who are tactless and self-centred, and the pronouncement of it involves at least a little censure. For example: someone walks into a plus size store and comments on how BIG all the clothes are. That’s just tacky. Paris Hilton does… pretty much anything. That’s just tacky. A college roommate who goes to
You get the idea. One more thing: one doesn’t look for tacky, and if one accidentally finds it, one definitely doesn’t narrate it in the present tense because that would only compound the tackiness as it occurs, and what’s more, it would taint you with the tacky too. The correct behavior is to gasp and avert your eyes. So. Consider yourself primed to recognize the phenomenon if it should occur in your future, but by no means give yourself permission to stand up and point, screaming loudly, “That’s just tacky!” because that would be… tacky.