Search us!

Search The Word Detective and our family of websites:

This is the easiest way to find a column on a particular word or phrase.

To search for a specific phrase, put it between quotation marks.






Comments are OPEN.

We deeply appreciate the erudition and energy of our commenters. Your comments frequently make an invaluable contribution to the story of words and phrases in everyday usage over many years.

Please note that comments are moderated, and will sometimes take a few days to appear.



shameless pleading







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.

slack08.pngFunny 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.

6 comments to Slack

  • Joan Jett

    How does all this relate to the phrase “cut me some slack”?

    Is it connected in any way to that bit of rope that is hanging loose? That would seem to be the “slack” that you could cut me. But why would I need it cut? And what would I do with the slack once you cut it for me?

    It would appear to come from the “careless in personal conduct” definition of slack. I’m asking you to allow me the opportunity to be less than perfect. But how would someone cut me a piece of that slack? Wouldn’t I ask you to “give me some slack”? After all, I ask you to give me a break, not cut me one.

    Is the key somewhere in the word “cut”?

    Please help me, otherwise I’ll be forced to accept that the phrase was originally used by a sailor cutting some type of rope on a sea-going vessel a few hundred years ago.

  • Mike

    “Cut me some slack” = “Give me some time”; “don’t strictly enforce a rule against me”; “your request is unreasonable”.

    “Cut me” can mean “give me” (sometimes people say “cut me a break” for “give me a break”). Maybe it derives from the idea of cutting off a piece for me and has simply become more generalized to uses where literally cutting off a piece no longer applies.

    The “slack” is looseness – less restriction – more freedom.

  • Anne

    Maybe it’s this way- someone is on a tight rope (sounds like my dog’s leash manners). They need, or want, more wiggle room. So, “cut me some slack”. That’s how I’ve always seen it.

  • Andrew

    I’m wondering it the derivation of cut in the expression was more to the line of rope splicing – so ‘cut me some slack’ meant “give me some more rope to add to this to make it slack”.

  • Your website has to be the eletrocinc Swiss army knife for this topic.

  • chromedonut

    Cut me some slack is from sellers of canvas and rope for saliboats. Buyers would ask for a little extra, a little slack, from the seller as a favor just in case they had not measured right for the sail they were making. It’s like the bakers dozen or lagniappe for the yachting set!

Leave a Reply




You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

Please support
The Word Detective

by Subscribing.


Follow us on Twitter!




Makes a great gift! Click cover for more.

400+ pages of science questions answered and explained for kids -- and adults!