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Go off on a tangent

Posted by Smokey Stover on April 16, 2008 at 07:31:

In Reply to: Go off on a tangent posted by Probe on April 16, 2008 at 05:44:

: : : : : : : What does 'go off on a tangent' mean?

: : : : : : Regarding conversation, it means talk off topic. The person is talking about Subject 1 and gets distracted and starts talking about Subject 2. Or if a person is housecleaning, finds a box of old pictures and abandons the original job to research the photos, that's going off on a tangent. Tangent means "diverging from an original purpose or course" (Merriam-Webster).

: : : : : Quite right, but I wish Merriam-Webster had related the word to its original meaning. Tangent means, in L@tin, touching. Remember "Noli me tangere"? Most people encounter it in high school geometry, where two lines touch, but don't cross. Thus, going of on a tangent means going off on a line that touches the original one, but takes a different course. We're having, say, a discussion of hair-styling, and Barbara goes off on a tangent with a history of bobby pins. Hair-styling touches on bobby pins, but they are incidental to the main topic.
: : : : : SS

: : : : Is there an idiomatic expression for intentional going off on a tangent as explained in the last case by SS? That is, going off on a different line in order to avoid a conversation on the original one? Thank you.

: : : "Ducking the issue," "dodging the issue," "sidestepping," etc.

: : Evidentally, someone took some kind of non-Euclidean geometry in high school. Two lines cannot touch without either crossing or being the same line in normal geometry. Also, the definition given from Merriam-Webster is 2). 1) is in fact about geometry - you get your wish...
: : 1 a: meeting a curve or surface in a single point if a sufficiently small interval is considered b : having a common tangent line at a point : having a common tangent plane at a point

: "Ducking the issue," "dodging the issue," "sidestepping," etc.

: Do all of them bear the sense of an intentional action or may also happen inadvertedly?

Ducking or dodging the issue is pretty much deliberate by definition, as is sidestepping the issue. On the other hand, going off on a tangent, while it may result in "getting off-track" or dodging the issue, is not necessarily a deliberate effort to accomplish that. Some people do that because it is their nature. I know, for I am one who wanders off the original path frequently, as my colleagues often remind me.

If you wish to make sure that your term of choice conveys intent, prefix it with "deliberate" or "deliberately," depending on whether you are modifying a noun or a verb.