Wordwatch Towers

A plain language guide to punctuation, grammar and writing well.

In praise of flackery

with 4 comments

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I have just  read the After Deadline corrections column in The New York Times and, following some sound advice to be found in my last post, did so within easy reach of narrowed, glinty eyes and  big books with ‘Oxford’ in their title. 

Here’s what I read:  

Mr. Chaffetz said he took a fair amount of flack from other Republicans over his friendship with Mr. Weiner but found it easy to defend. 

If we indeed wanted to use a colloquialism here, the one we wanted was “flak.” 

Or, indeed, ‘flack’. ‘Flack’ being a variant spelling of ‘flak’ which means anti-aircraft fire, or, as used above, strong or annoying criticism or opposition. See Oxford Dictionaries. 

I wondered if maybe Americans are stricter about the flak/flack thing. However, although Garner’s Modern American Usage says ‘flak’ should not be spelt ‘flack’, Merriam-Webster does allow both spellings. 

In addition, I didn’t know that ‘flack’ is also a North American term for a ‘publicity agent’. It can be used as a verb, ‘flacking’, and the noun ‘flackery’ can also be derived from it. Hmm — could be more useful to use as a swear word when your mum is within earshot. 


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4 Responses

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  1. American English is full of colloquialisms, isn’t it?
    The term “flack” as a negative for publicity person has an interesting history. It does sound like “flak”, the slang for anti-aircraft fire (that word being onomatopoetic), but that’s a cultural coincidence. There was an effective publicity person for movies named Gene Flack who was prominent in the 1930s. Variety began using the term as a kind of homage, but it was meant as a compliment!

    My theory on the change of direction is based on nothing but a hunch. A hack is a bad writer (for hire). Flack sounds as if it is related to the verbs flog and/or flock, both of which could apply to publicity promotion. By that evolution/association, and possibly the contraction of “film hack” into flack, we end up with it as a perjorative for pushy, devious, insubstantial publicity people.

    Using it in place of “flak” is just wrong, but it’s about what I would expect from Webster’s – the People magazine of dictionaries.

    Invisible Mikey

    07/03/2011 at 7:48 pm

    • Thanks for this really interesting comment, Mikey. I didn’t know about Gene Flack. I also didn’t realise that the term ‘flack’ is now a negative one in the US. That’s not noted on either the Oxford Dictionaries site or the Merriam-Webster site. (‘Flack’ is not used in this context at all in Blighty and would not be understood.) Your theory about its evolution from positive to negative is interesting. It’s strange how words evolve in this way. Your mention of ‘hack’ reminded me of another word, ‘hacker’, that has completely changed from positive to negative in a relatively short space of time. It was originally used, in the early 1960s, to describe the very clever bods who first developed computer technology — now, of course, hackers are the baddies who ‘hack’ into computer systems and cause havoc. Thanks again, Mikey.


      07/03/2011 at 8:27 pm

  2. hi deborah , you have a great blog and loads of content , one thing you need to do is limit the total number of tags in both the “posted in” and “tagged area” to 9/10 any more the search engines dont like it. would you add my site to your blogroll please, harry


    10/03/2011 at 9:18 pm

    • Thanks, Harry! I know, I go overboard with the tags thing. I try to be strict with myself, then forget again, so thanks for the reminder. I know it’s an important point when it comes to the scary search engines and all that weird and wonderful interweb stuff.


      10/03/2011 at 9:22 pm

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