Flack, Flak

And whoooom shall I say is calling?

Note: This column originally ran (and was sent to subscribers) in December, 2008.

Dear Word Detective:  An article about a congresswoman who hung up on the President-elect (because she thought it was a prank call) referred to the congresswoman’s “flack.”  Surely a new word, I thought (wrongly).  I gathered that it meant something like a spokesperson, and sure enough, both Merriam-Webster online and my 2nd edition American Heritage confirmed that it refers to a press agent.  MW says it has been around since 1939 (as long as some of my cousins!)  Both MW and American Heritage say origin unknown, although a rather weird site called the Visual Thesaurus relates it to “flak” (anti-aircraft fire).  This seemed to me an iffy connection.  What have you got for me? — Charles Anderson.

Good question.  Incidentally, I saw that congresscritter (as Molly Ivins used to call them) explaining her actions on TV, and I’m on her side in this ruckus.  There’s a serious shortage of skepticism in this country.  I can, for instance, call my local bank and ask for my balance, giving only my account number.  Of course, I also have to answer the Secret Security Question, which is “What’s your name, Hon?”  Maybe I should keep my pennies somewhere that doesn’t have a live bait vending machine in the parking lot.

Visual Thesaurus is a rather weird website.  I went there to see what they say about “flack,” but their fancy-schmanzy interface froze my browser.  In any case, they’re not the only folks trying to trace “flack,” meaning a spokesperson or publicity agent, to “flak,” meaning literally “anti-aircraft fire,” and, figuratively, “harsh criticism.”  But while both “flack” and “flak” are part of the vocabulary of public relations, there is no connection between the two words.

“Flak” is a relic of World War II, when German anti-aircraft guns were known as “Fliegerabwehrkanone,” literally “pilot defense guns.”  The initial letters of the constituent parts of that word spell “flak,” and the acronym was picked up by Allied pilots who also used it to mean the cannon fire itself.  “Flak” first appeared in print in English in 1938, and in its literal sense produced such forms as “flak jacket” (body armor) and “flak happy” (affected by “shell shock,” or what we now call PTSD).

By 1968, “flak” was being used in its now more common figurative  sense of “adverse criticism,” which led to Tom Wolfe coining the term “flak catcher” (in his 1970 book “Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers”) for a public relations agent who deals with unfavorable publicity.

“Flack” is a product of the same period, first appearing in print (as far as we know) in 1937.  Although many dictionaries list the origin of the term as “unknown,” a magazine called “Better English” reported in June 1939 that the show-business newspaper Variety was, at that time, “trying to coin the word ‘flack’ as a synonym for publicity agent,” adding that “the word is said to be derived from Gene Flack, a movie publicity agent.”  While I do not have access to the archives of Variety from the 1930s, it seems unlikely that “Better English” simply made up the item.  Assuming the story is true, “flack” is an eponym, a noun formed from a proper name, in this case immortalizing a man who spent his life trying to immortalize movie stars.

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