Language Corner

When flacks catch flak

February 21, 2017

When Donald Trump talked (very briefly) about Black History Month, one reporter wrote that “The president took some flack” for speaking of Frederick Douglass in the present tense, “making it appear as though he may have thought Douglass, who died in 1895, was still alive.”

Actually, what the president took was “flak.” His “flacks,” however, took even more for him.

The confusion between “flak” and “flack” is perennial, one of many pairs of words that sound alike but have different meanings.

“Flak” and “flack” have a lot of overlap, though, so some of the confusion is understandable.

Let’s start with “flak.” It traces to Germany in 1938, where it became the shorthand for “fliegerabwehrkanone,” a “pilot-defence-gun,” the Oxford English Dictionary says. (If you look closely, you can see the “fl,” “a,” and “k” hiding in that mouthful.) In other words, it was an anti-aircraft gun. The projectiles it flung into the air were also “flak,” and soon we had noun phrases like “flak jacket.”

It wasn’t until 1968, the OED says, that “flak” gained a figurative use for “abuse, adverse criticism” delivered in a barrage.

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“Flack” is a nickname for a press agent, spokesman, public relations person, etc. It arose in 1946, the OED says, to mean “a press agent; a publicity man.” While its origin is unknown, the earliest use of “flack” was a verb meaning “to flap, flutter; to flap the wings; to throb, palpitate.” Sounds a lot like what “flacks” do, yes?

Referring to people, “flack” has a slightly derogatory flavor, though CNN called White House spokesman Sean Spicer “The playfully pugilistic flack.”

Probably because of the business they’re in, journalists are more likely to use “flack” when they mean “flak,” but the opposite is rarely true. If you want a mnemonic, remember that someone who is “taking flak” is under fire, and both “flak” and “fire” have four letters.

But usage has a way of making a level playing field. In its 1993 Draft Additions, the OED has an entry that can make the confusion more likely, or eliminate the difference entirely.

That entry is for “flak-catcher,” called a colloquialism that originated the United States for “one who deals with and deflects adverse or hostile comment, questions, etc., in order to protect a person or institution from unfavourable publicity.” In other words, a “flack.”

Another homonym in the news came as Yahoo announced yet another theft of users’ identities, and the resultant fallout. “Over 80 percent of hacks or data breeches occur when someone gains access to a system using a person’s personal information or logins,” a business journal reported.

No, those were “breaches.”

“Breach” means “break,” as in the penetration of a defensive wall. As Shakespeare wrote in Henry V: “Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more; Or close the wall up with our English dead.” When hackers break in and steal data, they have “breached” the defenses set up to keep them out.

If you want a mnemonic for that, remember that “breach” is spelled like “break,” even though it doesn’t sound like it.

“Breach” is an ancient word, going back to Old English. “Breech” is not quite as old, tracing to around 1000, the OED says. It was originally a cloth covering the loins and thighs, and later also covering the behind. By extension, it was “The hinder parts of a beast; also of its skin or fleece.”

So when a baby comes out butt first, that’s a “breech” birth (though it’s probably also a “breach” of the mother’s “hinder parts”). “Breech birth” traces to 1673, the OED says.

To be fair, many articles using “breech” incorrectly have also used “breach.” Covering all their “breeches”?

“Breeches” are also pants. The OED has a little fun in its entry: “Breeches are distinguished from trousers by coming only just below the knee, but dialectally (and humorously) breeches includes trousers.”

The phrase “to wear the breeches” originated as an insult meaning that the wife of the house had more authority than the husband, the OED says. It credits Davy Crockett for coining “too big for his breeches.” The more common spelling today is “britches,” though it peacefully coexisted with “breeches” for centuries.

Now, what happens when a spokesman who has fed you information for years is promoted and falls mute?

(Groaner alert.)

Perhaps the “flack” got too big for his “breaches.”

Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at the New York Times, where she worked for twenty-five years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.