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shameless pleading

Flak / Flack / Harp

Welcome to iHell. Here’s your iHarp.

Dear Word Detective: In my mother’s family there is a phrase that I haven’t encountered elsewhere and I’m wondering about the origin. The phrase it “to give [someone] flack (flak?)” and means, depending on the context, either “to berate” (as in “my boss gave me flack for coming in late yesterday”) or “to complain at” (“stay up late if you want to but you better not give me any flack about being tired in the morning.”). It also has the connotation that the complaint, whatever it is, is trivial and thus the person giving flack is actually harping on the victim for no reason. Oh, and hey! Why do we use the verb “to harp” to mean berate and annoy? A two-fer. Any ideas? — Gwyn.

And they say families don’t communicate these days, that each member spends all day swaddled in the solipsistic glow of their digital doodads, texting “friends” they’ve never met and agonizing over their Facebook updates. “Fie!” say I to the media mob spreading this canard, this spurious trend du jour. Families are alive, well, and driving each other nuts with constant harping and flocks of flack, just as they always have. In fact, the profusion of iPads, iPhones and other iRubbish has, no doubt, exponentially increased the occasions for face-to-face familial conflict. After all, television, the previous locus of much household discord, never hit you with overage charges or introduced your kid to aging sickos pretending to be Justin Bieber’s cousin. So rave on, Ward and June.

I actually answered a query about “flack” back in 2008, but it’s worth revisiting, since we’re coming up on an election year and the political “flacks” will be out in force. “Flack” and “flak” are actually two different words, but things get a bit confusing because they tend to be used interchangeably in some contexts. “Flak” dates back to World War II, when German anti-aircraft guns (“Fliegerabwehrkanone,” literally “pilot defense guns”) were known to Allied pilots by their rough acronym “flak,” which soon became shorthand for antiaircraft fire itself. If you’ve ever seen film of Allied bombers dodging small black clouds over Europe, those clouds are flak bursts. By the late 1960s, “flak” had come to mean “adverse criticism” or “verbal abuse,” and was often spelled “flack.” In his 1970 book “Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers,” author Tom Wolfe coined the term “flak-catcher” for a public-relations aide whose job is to intercept and deflect criticism (“flak”) directed at a prominent person.

That brought the meaning of “flak” confusingly close to that of “flack,” meaning a public relations agent, which had first appeared in print in 1937. This “flack” was apparently coined by Variety, the show business newspaper, in tribute to Gene Flack, a well-known PR agent for movie stars. So “flak” means “criticism or complaining” and is sometimes spelled “flack,” and the other “flack” is a public relations person whose job consists of protecting a big shot from “flak.” And a “flak-catcher” is a flack who catches flak. Simple, yes?

A “harp” is, of course, a rather large stringed musical instrument that produces a sound thought by many to be lovely and ethereal. (Your mileage may vary. Mine certainly does. In several ancient languages, the root of “harp” was also used to mean “an instrument of torture.” Just sayin’.) The verb “to harp” appeared in Old English meaning “to play on a harp,” but by the 16th century the expression “to harp upon the same string” had come to mean “to repetitively and tediously speak about one subject” (“They are sure still harping on their old string,” 1568). This led to “harp” being used today as a verb meaning “to complain repetitively on one subject at tedious length.”

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