tan·​gent | \ ˈtan-jənt How to pronounce tangent (audio) \

Definition of tangent

 (Entry 1 of 2)

1 : an abrupt change of course : digression the speaker went off on a tangent
2a : the trigonometric function that for an acute angle is the ratio between the leg opposite to the angle when it is considered part of a right triangle and the leg adjacent
b : a trigonometric function that is equal to the sine divided by the cosine for all real numbers θ for which the cosine is not equal to zero and is exactly equal to the tangent of an angle of measure θ in radians
3 : a line that is tangent specifically : a straight line that is the limiting position of a secant of a curve through a fixed point and a variable point on the curve as the variable point approaches the fixed point
4 : a small upright flat-ended metal pin at the inner end of a clavichord key that strikes the string to produce the tone



Definition of tangent (Entry 2 of 2)

1a : meeting a curve or surface in a single point if a sufficiently small interval is considered straight line tangent to a curve
b(1) : having a common tangent line at a point tangent curves
(2) : having a common tangent plane at a point tangent surfaces
2 : diverging from an original purpose or course : irrelevant tangent remarks

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Synonyms for tangent

Synonyms: Noun

aside, digression, divagation, excursion

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Examples of tangent in a Sentence


in the middle of her description of her dog's symptoms, she went off on a tangent about its cute behavior

Recent Examples on the Web: Noun

The Mueller matter capped a week that saw Trump go on an unusual tangent: a sustained and bitter dressing down of the late Republican senator, John McCain. Calvin Woodward, The Seattle Times, "AP fact check: Trump hails an exoneration not offered," 25 Mar. 2019 The book’s structure enables him to wander off on some curious tangents. Steven Poole, WSJ, "‘Team Human’ Review: Users of the World, Unite!," 25 Jan. 2019 Her stories unspooled slowly, with winding tangents. Malika Andrews, New York Times, "A Relative Wages Jack Johnson’s Biggest Fight: To Clear His Name," 8 May 2018 NASCAR Twitter is known to get on ridiculous tangents from time to time, but the one stemming from a conversation Dale Earnhardt Jr. started Thursday has to be among the best. Michelle R. Martinelli, For The Win, "Dale Earnhardt Jr. accidentally ignited a NASCAR Twitter discussion about 'The Notebook'," 15 Mar. 2018 In an hourlong news conference after his summit Tuesday with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, President Trump went off on a tangent near and dear to his heart: beachfront real estate. Victoria Kim, latimes.com, "Trump says he sees a familiar opportunity in North Korea: real estate," 13 June 2018 Trump went on an extended tangent about immigration during a roundtable in West Virginia that was designed to showcase the Republican tax cut. David S. Cloud, latimes.com, "As border crossings rise, Trump vents frustration on illegal immigration," 5 Apr. 2018 There are some odd tangents to this story that don’t really matter. Bob Ford, Philly.com, "What will the NFL do about Shady McCoy? | Bob Ford," 12 July 2018 Atlanta’ Breaks TV’s Rules ‘Atlanta,’ the FX series created by Donald Glover and directed by Hiro Murai, veers into tangents and subplots in ways nobody expected from a half-hour comedy. John Jurgensen, WSJ, "Under-the-Radar Crime Drama ‘Power’ Keeps Gaining Viewers," 27 June 2018

These example sentences are selected automatically from various online news sources to reflect current usage of the word 'tangent.' Views expressed in the examples do not represent the opinion of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback.

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First Known Use of tangent


1594, in the meaning defined at sense 2a


1594, in the meaning defined at sense 1a

History and Etymology for tangent


New Latin tangent-, tangens, from linea tangens tangent line


Latin tangent-, tangens, present participle of tangere to touch; perhaps akin to Old English thaccian to touch gently, stroke

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Statistics for tangent

Last Updated

18 Apr 2019

Look-up Popularity

Time Traveler for tangent

The first known use of tangent was in 1594

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More Definitions for tangent



English Language Learners Definition of tangent

geometry : a line that touches a sphere or circle at only one point

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Comments on tangent

What made you want to look up tangent? Please tell us where you read or heard it (including the quote, if possible).


a strong desire or propensity

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