The Grammarphobia Blog

Flack attack

Q: Are flacks so named because they take flak for being such pests?

A: No, “flack” and “flak” aren’t related. While a “flack” (a promoter or publicist) often takes “flak” (criticism), the two words evolved independently.

It’s a common myth that “flack” is a misspelling of “flak.” In fact, it’s one of the myths about language that we discuss in our book Origins of the Specious. Here’s what we say:

“Ask almost anyone and you’ll hear that ‘flack’ is a misspelling of ‘flak,’ a term coined during World War II to describe enemy antiaircraft fire. (‘Flak’ was an acronym for fliegerabwehrkanone, a German antiaircraft gun.) After the war, ‘flak’ also came to mean a barrage of criticism or disapproval. It’s understandable, then, that the flacks who bombarded news hounds relentlessly with press releases got confused with flak. Even slang lexicographers have described ‘flack’ as a misspelling of ‘flak.’

“In the interest of giving credit where credit is due, let’s do some public relations on behalf of the now-obscure PR man who gave us ‘flack.’ His name was Gene Flack (yes, that was his real name), and in the 1920s and ’30s he was a movie publicist without peer. He was so good at his job that Variety, the showbiz weekly, starting calling all publicists ‘flacks.’ ”

One reason the origins of “flack” and “flak” have become confused is that the words emerged at about the same time.

The Oxford English Dictionary says that “flak,” an acronym of the German term described above, was first recorded in a 1938 edition of the naval reference book Jane’s Fighting Ships, which is published in Britain. “Flak” apparently remained a technical term for a couple of years and didn’t become current until wartime, since published usages didn’t appear again until 1940.

The OED says “flack,” which it defines as “a press agent” or “a publicity man,” is a “chiefly U.S.” slang term of unknown origin first recorded in 1946.

But “flack” is older than the OED indicates, and showed up at least a year before “flak” was recorded in Jane’s. Here are the two oldest citations given in Green’s Dictionary of Slang:

1939: “Variety which is trying to coin ‘flack’ as a synonym for press agent (without much luck) might like to know it was born in the offices of Gene Flack, a film publicist.” (From Walter Winchell’s syndicated newspaper column On Broadway.)

1937: “Whereupon Paramount elected to cash in on the publicity and the flack as Variety calls press agents, leaped to his typing machine.” (From the Oakland Tribune.)

Winchell’s column isn’t the only published source that connects “flack” with the press agent Gene Flack.

Fred R. Shapiro, editor of the Yale Book of Quotations, wrote in the journal American Speech in 1984 about another sighting:

“In the June, 1939 issue of the magazine Better English: A Monthly Guide for the Improvement of Speech and Writing, a small note on p. 28 reads: ‘That alert weekly, Variety, birthplace of numerous Americanisms, is trying to coin the word ‘flack’ as a synonym for publicity agent. The word is said to be derived from Gene Flack, a movie publicity agent. Something Variety may have overlooked, however, is that a Yiddish word similar in sound means ‘one who goes around talking about the other fellow’s business.’ ”

Shapiro went on to say: “Variety‘s eponymous etymology of flack, although questioned by Better English, is backed by the authority of the word’s apparent coiner, and must now replace the chronologically untenable flak theory as the probable derivation.”

You can disregard that suggestion about a Yiddish connection. The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang mentions that 1939 quotation, but notes that the Yiddish word referred to is unknown and “the closest words available are unlikely on various grounds.”

So that’s the story to date. As we noted in Origins of the Specious, “it’s ironic that the press agent behind the word ‘flack’ should be all but forgotten today.”

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