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Tonight I heard someone say, "We're going off tangent here."

I take this to be a mistaken conflation of "off on a tangent" with "off track."

However, is a shift occurring? Is "off tangent" developing some currency? Is it becoming accepted? Or is it still fundamentally incorrect?

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Sounds like a slip of the lip to me. Never heard it before, but then I never read "I'm gonna loose my mind" until the Internet became popular. People will say anything. Pay them no mind. They'll later claim to have been misquoted or misunderstood, after admitting that they misspoke. – user21497 Apr 17 '13 at 6:38
I think it is gaining traction. People in general don't know what a tangent is. To most, it might be assumed to mean "track". – Prof. Falken Apr 17 '13 at 6:45
That may be it, @AmigableClarkKant. If I hear (or read) "off tangent" I immediately think "But a tangent is a line away ... perpendicular ... radius .. thingy" (I half-remember it). So is "off-tangent" a movement back towards the circle, getting back on track, or a move even further away from it? – njd Apr 17 '13 at 9:27
@njd, I think it's anywhere but not following the circling motion. – Prof. Falken Apr 17 '13 at 11:30
@njd - If we take it literally, I think "off tangent" would mean digressing from a digression. If the "circle" is your (circumscribed) discussion, going "on a tangent" would mean heading off on a straight line away from that circle. Going "off tangent" implies (to me) that you were "on a tangent" in the first place, so "off tangent" implies that you are leaving the digression and entering "free space" -- nothing is connected to anything else and anything can happen! All of that said, I seriously doubt that anyone who uses the phrase "off tangent" thinks of it that way. – Athanasius Apr 17 '13 at 17:31

I suspect that the person who said "We're going off tangent here" may have had in mind not "off track" but "off topic." Going "off track" may indicate either jumping the track (as a derailed train might) or leaving the marked trail (and being in danger of getting lost). Both of those possibilities are fairly strong negative descriptions of going wrong.

In contrast, "going off topic" or "getting off topic" simply means being diverted into an area that isn't the focus of present business. In this respect, it has much the same meaning as "going off on a tangent."

In geometry a "tangent" is a straight line that touches a circle or sphere at exactly one point and then runs infinitely away from that point in both directions. Going off topic is likewise moving steadily away from the point of the meeting or discussion. The problem in both cases isn't that the conversation is utterly derailed or lost in the wilderness; it's that starting from a point of contact with the relevant topic, the conversation is moving farther away from it.

A search using the Ngram Viewer indicates that the phrase "go off tangent" goes back at least 59 years and that it is growing in popularity rather than declining. The earliest possible instance I found in the search results is a somewhat ambiguous snippet from a novel by Edward Dahlberg, Those Who Perish (1934):

...asked the Secretary in a tall-ish voice which went off tangent. "I make it a motion, Mr. Chairman," said the manufacturer of broadcloth. "Now I think we're getting somewhere," said the man with the adenoidal boom. ...

The oldest clear-cut instance I found is from Hearings of the U.S. Senate Committee on Small Business, volume 3 (1954), which involves testimony from a man who evidently was held in one of the infamous Japanese-American internment camps of the 1940s:

Mr. Shibata. And in the camp I became active in different work. Am I going off tangent?

Mr. Purcell. They will stop you if you go off tangent.

Mr. Jonas. Quite all right.

Mr. Shibata. I was Secretary of the city council in Tule Lake Camp and the camp was self-governed, and one of the major issues that came up ...

From the same year, in Edmund Bergler, The Writer and Psychoanalysis, we have this specimen:

The analyst, misunderstanding what is going on, interprets the oedipal repetition, with the result that facts and interpretation are at odds and the whole analysis goes off tangent.

The next oldest is also from political discourse, in this case the Nigeria House of Representatives, Parliamentary Debates, volume 18, part 2 (1965):

[Unidentified speaker]: The Member for Gaya North (Alhaji Yunusa) made some very important points though he was going off tangent, but there are arithmetical and geometrical tangents which are admissible, even in trade. This his off tangent is admissible even in trade. He said that we should—

Mr. A. T. Mbegbu (Bende West): I think that when we refer to tangents we talk of things falling off. Is the Minister of Trade now trying to include the points "off tangent" or is he trying to exclude them?

Representative of the numerous examples that the Ngram Viewer found from recent years is this one from Anton Manning, The Military's Relationship with the Media (2007):

Another officer narrated the experience he had with media requests to interview U.S. Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki. When the cameras were off, the media members briefed Shinseki on the types of questions they had and what they were looking for. “When it came down to it with the cameras rolling, they would go completely off tangent.”

In none of these examples does "going off tangent" express the intended idea as clearly as would "going off on a tangent," "going off topic," "going off track, " or "going off target."

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