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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.


Full boor.

Dear Word Detective: Where does the word “rude” come from? Is someone who is “rude” someone who is “rue-ed,” as in one regrets his or her company because they are annoying? Or is there a completely different origin? — Aimee.

rude08.pngWell, it’s time to say it again — I have the smartest readers on the planet. That explanation would never have occurred to me. Then again, it never occurred to me to release the parking brake before driving to the Post Office last week. But I do think “ru-ed” is truly inspired. However, I notice from your email address that you’re writing from France, so you have an advantage, since almost every street sign there includes the word “Rue.” Incidentally, do you folks have a “Rue de Rue,” perhaps some run-down alley where Parisians go to wallow in regret? I know Edith Piaf (“Non, je ne regrette rien”) wasn’t big on second thoughts, but surely “if only” has its tear-stained equivalent in French. Somebody is drinking all that absinthe.

Oh right, you had a question. How rude of me. No, there is, sadly, no connection between “rue” and “rude.”

There are actually two “rues” in English. One is a sort of evergreen shrub, “Ruta graveolens” to its friends, the leaves of which were once used to make medicinal tea which tasted terrible and made for equally terrible puns on the “regret” sort of “rue” (“Least time and triall make thee account Rue a most bitter hearbe,” 1583).

The other “rue,” a verb today meaning “to feel regret,” first appeared in Old English from Germanic roots (as “hreowan”) meaning “to make someone feel regret or penitence.” It wasn’t until the 13th century that “rue” took on the modern meaning of “feel sorry about.” There is also a noun form of “rue,” meaning “a regret or misgiving” but it is now considered archaic. Another noun formed from “rue,” namely “ruth” (meaning “pity”), didn’t fare much better, and is today known only in its negative form, “ruthless.”

“Rude” first appeared in English in the 14th century, derived from the Latin “rudis” (“unformed, inexperienced, or unpolished”) with the general sense of “ignorant, wild, or raw,” and quickly took on a wide variety of meanings, from “discourteous” to “crudely drawn” (as in “a rude sketch”). Somewhat surprisingly, “rude” is completely unrelated to “crude,” which is rooted in the Latin “crudus,” meaning “rough or cruel.” But the Latin root of “rude” did spin off two other useful words, “rudiment” (the “raw or most basic state” of something) and “erudite” (literally “brought out of ignorance”).


We’ll even throw in a “Sheep Gone Wild” DVD.

Dear Word Detective: In New Zealand we call a plastic jar a “pottle.” Who else in the world has “pottle” for this usage? Why won’t the yanks and pommies understand me? — Jimmy Langrish, Wellington, New Zealand.

Beats me. Perhaps they all watch too much TV, and their brains have rotted. Do you have TV down there in, let’s see, “New Zealand”? Do you have any oil? Answer the second question first. Anyway, if you send us your oil, we’ll send you TV, and after a while you won’t miss your oil. Want some Coca-Cola? Don’t be afraid. We like you.

pottle08.pngI suspect that a ten-second primer on “yanks and pommies” is in order for some of my readers. “Yank” (short for “yankee”), of course, means a person from the USA, and while the origin of the term is disputed, it most likely derives from “Jan Kees” (or “John Cheese”), an insult originally used by the Dutch settlers of New York against later English arrivals. “Pommy” (or just “pom”) is Australian/New Zealand slang for an English person, and derives from “pomegranate,” word play for “Jimmy Grant,” which, in turn, was 19th century rhyming slang for “immigrant” (immigrants during that period coming primarily from England). The popular story about “pom” standing for “Prisoner of Her Majesty” (i.e., British convicts exiled to Australia) is, incidentally, bunk.

I can confirm that “pottle” is not in common use in the US, although major dictionaries do acknowledge its existence. In this neck of the woods, however, a “pottle” must evidently be of a certain size. The American Heritage Dictionary, for instance, defines “pottle” as “a pot or drinking vessel with a capacity of 2.0 quarts,” and Merriam-Webster concurs with “a container holding a half gallon (1.9 liters).”

That specific volume, it seems, is not a recent development for “pottle.” When “pottle” first appeared in English in the early 14th century, it usually meant a half-gallon pot or tankard, and “pottle” itself was used until relatively recently as a measure of volume equal to two quarts, much as we use “gallon” or “cup” today (“In measuring beer or ale, two pints make one quart; two quarts make one pottle; two pottles make one gallon,” Lima (Ohio) News, 1940).

In recent years, however, “pottle” seems to have lost that “half gallon” connotation in casual usage and serves as simply another name for “bottle” (to which it is unrelated), “cup” or “jar.” Ironically, this more general use harks back to the root of “pottle,” which was adopted from the Old French “potel,” meaning “small pot,” based in turn on the Latin “pottus,” also, not surprisingly, the root of our modern “pot.”