Dear Word Detective: Does “slack,” as in “cut me some slack,” have anything to do with the body covering we call “slacks”? Am I a “slacker” if I wear slacks … no, don’t answer that! Is the word “lax,” which is very similar in meaning and in sound to “slack,” related in any way? Which language do these words come from? In German “Lachs,” which sounds exactly the same as “lax,” means a salmon, not exactly a lazy fish, maybe just a laid back one? — Margherita.
Funny you should mention salmon. I was compiling a mental list the other day of all the bizarre jobs I’ve ever held, and I realized that one of the strangest was an offer I didn’t take — sitting by a river in Alaska, counting the salmon swimming upstream to breed. It seemed kinda creepy and intrusive to me at the time, not entirely fair to the salmon. Of course, that was before they (you know, Them) put surveillance cameras on every parking meter. Speaking of our shiny new Panopticon, am I the only one who assumed that having everyone read “1984” in high school would inoculate us against that sort of thing? Silly me.
The etymology of German words is a bit beyond my bailiwick, but I can report that “slack” is indeed related to “lax,” albeit in a rather roundabout way.
Although we might assume that “slacker” invokes a relatively modern sense of “slack,” the original meaning of “slack” as an adjective in English was, in fact, “lacking in energy or diligence; inclined to be lazy or idle.” “Slack” is based on the Proto-Germanic root word “sleg,” meaning “careless” or “lazy.” “Slack” first appeared in Old English (as “slaec”), meaning “careless in personal conduct,” and that meaning has persisted steadily to this day, when “slacker” is used as a noun synonymous with the old-fashioned “lazybones.”
It wasn’t until the 14th century that “slack” as an adjective took on the meaning of meaning literally “not tight or snug,” and loose trousers weren’t called “slacks” until the early 19th century. “Slack” as a noun meaning “the part which hangs loose, especially of a rope, etc.” (e.g., “Take up the slack in that cord so someone doesn’t trip”) didn’t come into use until the 18th century. But “slack” as a verb meaning “to be remiss; to waste time” dates all the way back to the 16th century.
Now if we rewind a bit to that Germanic root word “sleg” (specifically its alternate form “leg”), we find that it is also the root of “lax” (via the Latin word “laxus”). In English, as with “slack,” the first uses of “lax” were in regard to people whose attitudes were perhaps more relaxed than they should have been (as well as to the intestinal tracts of people, which gave us our English “laxative”). It was only in the 15th century that “lax” was first applied to laws and rules.