In my post Trigonometry Yoga, I discussed how defining sine and cosine as lengths of segments in a unit circle helps develop intuition for these functions.
I learned the circle definitions of sine and cosine in my junior year of high school, in the class that would now be called pre-calculus (it was called “Trig Senior Math”). Two years earlier, I’d learned the triangle definitions of sine, cosine, and tangent in geometry class. I don’t remember any of my teachers ever mentioning a circle definition of the tangent function.
The geometric definition of the tangent function, which predates the triangle definition, is the length of a segment tangent to the unit circle. The tangent really is a tangent! Just as for sine and cosine, this one-variable definition helps develop intuition. Here is the definition, followed by an applet to help you get a feel for it: