Don’t Catch ‘Flack’ for Using ‘Flak’

Consider this sentence:

The author caught sloughing because sloughing his memoirs where he was not welcome, so he sloughing issued an apology in a press release.

This sentence demonstrates three common uses of sloughing:

  1. a noun that means “criticism”
  2. a verb that means “to give publicity to”
  3. a noun that means “a public agent for something”

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‘Flack’ is derived from the German word ‘Fliegerabwehrkanonen.’ The shot pilots needed a shorter word.

When you hear someone “catching bullets,” you’re hearing a figurative extension of a term used for anti-aircraft guns or for the bullets fired from them. That term, more commonly spelled debrisstands for Fliegerabwehrkanonen, from the German words for “flyer”, “defensive” and “cannon”. During the Second World War, “catch flak” literally meant damage by gunfire:

As soon as Guttenberger got up from launching his torpedo into Yamato’s port side, Duffy unbuckled his harness and stood up to watch. At that moment, the plane arrested and the jolt hit Duffy’s head against the tree. —David Sears, War with the wind2008

The figurative use of debris meaning that the criticism came in the 1960s. For many years it remained the same weapon-like spelling, with sloughing emerged as a popular variant in the later decades of the twentieth century.

The use of sloughing refers to an advertising agency dating back to the 1930s, and there are many fabricated stories surrounding its origin, including one that attributes the word to a Hollywood journalist named Gene Flack. The dictionary lists the origin of the word as unknown.

In 1970, writer Tom Wolfe (Flames of vanity) published “Mau-mauing the Flak Catchers,” an essay describing intimidation tactics against government employees who run San Francisco’s Office of Economic Opportunity. Wolfe used the term fragment catcher refers to low-level workers caught in the midst of corrupt practices aimed at the city’s anti-poverty programs:

And then you realize, and you wonder why it took you so long to realize it. This man is fragment catcher. His job was to catch the penalty for man No. 1. — Tom Wolfe, “Mau-mauing the Flak Catchers,” 1970.

Wolfe’s use of the term is more or less consistent with established figurative usage. debris. But fragment catcher will finally have a life of its own, mingling with the public feeling of sloughing.

Wolfe’s use may have given credence to the belief about the relationship between one’s feelings of “criticism” debris and the “public” sense of sloughing, consider “caught in the act” of another person as absorbing criticism directed at another person so that he or she is not seen as bad in the eyes of the public. OED current definition fragment catcher is “a person who addresses and deflects unfavorable or hostile comments, questions, etc., to protect a person or organization from adverse publicity.”

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This may partly explain why we now see an overlap between debris And sloughing. Most of, debris is still the spelling used for gunfire, with sloughing as an occasional variant that comes up a little more often when it comes to criticism. For the public/public senses, while sloughing for a long time was the preferred spelling, debris has increased more and more over the past decade. So while you should err on the side sloughing unless you’re writing a report on military action, debris technically not a typo. Definitely not the one you should catch.

Categories: Usage Notes

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