The adjective tacit is an interesting case study in Early Modern borrowing from Latin because of its origin in legal jargon, a dialectal connection with Scottish English, a remarkable stability in meaning over the centuries, as well as its first citation in the Oxford English Dictionary being from the first English-language dictionary, Cawdrey’s 1604 Table Alphabeticall. The word appears to have been borrowed from Latin by Scottish lawyers, eventually making its way south into England. The connection with legal jargon and Scotland, however, is not obvious from the OED entry and must be teased out through close examination of the citations and by reference to other dictionaries of the era.

Tacit is a straightforward borrowing from tacitus, the past participle of the Latin verb tacere. Thomas’s 1587 Dictionarium Linguae Latinae et Anglicanae includes the Latin word both as verb and in its adjectival form, defining the adjective as:

That holdeth his peace and is still, quiet, saying nothing, without noise; also that is not spoken of, kept secret, that is let paße without any mention, passing on their course without noise, or passing away ere we perceive and beware; not uttered in wordes secret, inward, dumme, speechles, causing one to hold his peace.

Additionally, Lewis and Short’s Latin Dictionary notes that the verb was also a term of art in Roman jurisprudence, meaning “done without words, assumed as a matter of course, silent, implied” (1833). All of these Latin senses are represented in English citations in the OED from the early seventeenth century and remain current today.

The earliest OED English-language citation of tacit is from Robert Cawdrey’s 1604 Table Alphabeticall, which is generally acknowledged to be the first monolingual English dictionary. The fact that this early citation is from a dictionary, as opposed to a primary source, indicates that tacite, as Cawdrey spells it, was in English language use prior to 1604, but since Cawdrey’s dictionary only “conteyn[es] and teach[es] the true writing, and understanding of hard usuall English wordes,” the lexicographer evidently did not expect his readers to be familiar with it. Cawdrey’s definition, which corresponds to def. 1.b. in the OED, applies to a person or work that is “still, silent, saying nothing.” The other general sense, “unspoken, unvoiced, silent,” the OED’s def. 1.a., applies to the statement itself and is cited from 1605, appearing in Francis Bacon’s Of the Proficience and Advancement of Learning.

A search of the Lexicons of Early Modern English database turns up three other early dictionaries with entries for tacit. Blount’s 1656 Glossographia gives the Latin tacitus as the etymology and copies the definition from Thomas’s Latin dictionary, “that holds his peace, and is still, quiet, saying nothing without noise.” Edward Phillips’s 1658 The New World of English Words also gives a Latin etymology and defines the word succinctly as “silent.” And John Kersey’s 1702 English Dictionary is the first to list the headword with the modern spelling of tacit, and also defines it in the same way as the OED def. 2, as “not express’d; as a tacit consent, or approbation.”

According to the OED, this third sense of “not openly expressed or stated, but implied,” does not appear in English until at least 1637, when it can be found in John Row’s The Historie of the Kirk of Scotland. But the OED does include an earlier citation of the Latin tacita relocatio from Balfour’s Practicks, a digest of Scottish Law from c. 1575. Tacita relocatio, or tacit relocation, is the concept that a lease is understood to be renewed at the end of its term unless either the landlord or tenant expresses otherwise. Tacit relocation remains a term of art in British and North American jurisprudence to this day (Garner 1491–92). Early English uses of this third sense of tacit are primarily from Scottish sources, and this connection with Scottish dialect may be an additional reason why Cawdrey might have considered the word to be unfamiliar to his English audience.

Note that the c. 1575 Latin-English gloss given in the OED can be antedated. An earlier gloss of the Latin phrase auferre tacita appears in the bilingual Latin-English 1538 Dictionary of Sir Thomas Eliot, defining it as “to make oone to confesse a thynge secrete. Suspendas potius me, quam tacita hæc auferas, Thou mayst rather hange me, thanne make me confesse that secrete.”

So it appears that despite a first citation of 1604 in the OED, actual use of tacit in English predates Cawdrey’s dictionary by several decades, and it seems likely that the borrowing comes to us via law Latin through Scottish legal jargon.

Works Cited

Cawdrey, Robert. “Tacite.” A Table Alphabeticall. London: Edmund Weaver, 1604. Early English Books Online. Web. 13 Jan. 2011.

Eliot, Thomas. “Auferre Tacita.” The Dictionary of Syr Thomas Eliot Knyght. London: Thomas Berthelet, 1538. Early English Books Online. Web. 15 Jan. 2011.

Garner, Bryan A. “Tacit Relocation.” Black’s Law Dictionary. 8th ed. St. Paul, Mn: Thomson West, 2004. Print.

Lewis, Charlton T; Charles Short. “Taceo.” A Latin Dictionary. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1879. Print.

Lexicons of Early Modern English. Ed. Ian Lancashire. University of Toronto Library and University of Toronto Press, n.d. Web. 15 Jan. 2011.

“Tacit, adj.” Oxford English Dictionary Online. 2nd ed. Oxford University Press, 1989. Web. 13 Jan. 2011.

Thomas, Thomas. “Taceo” and “Tacitus.” Dictionarium Linguae Latinae Et Anglicanae. London: Richard Boyle, 1587. Early English Books Online. Web. 15 Jan. 2011.

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