Although they sound the same, their spellings differ by only one letter, they are often confused with one another, and they appeared in English at about the same time, flack and flak are very different words, with very different origins.
In the age department, flack edges out its competitor. The word was supposedly coined in Variety, the newspaper of the entertainment industry, but I’ve been unable to find early citations from this source. The earliest I’ve found is from the 25 February 1937 Oakland Tribune:
Whereupon Paramount elected to cash in on the publicity and the flack as Variety calls press agents, leaped to his typing machine.
On 23 January 1939, Walter Winchell, in his “On Broadway” syndicated column, gave the putative etymology of the word:
Variety which is trying to coin ‘flack’ as a synonym for press agent (without much luck) might like to know it was born in the Chicago offices of Gene Flack, a film publicist.
Gene Flack was a bigwig in the advertising and public relations business in the 1930s, and it seems likely that the term is an eponym, but it is not certain, as newspaper etymologies, while useful as evidence, are not conclusive in and of themselves; they’re often wrong. The Oxford English Dictionary lists the etymology as unknown.
The verb, to flack, meaning to promote, act as a press agent, is in place by 1963, as evidenced from this quotation from Maclean’s magazine on 17 July of that year:
Maney no longer flacks for Cohen, and therefore is not bound to compose compliments.
Flack is not to be confused with flak. The latter is a German acronym meaning anti-aircraft fire and stands for Fliegerabwehrkanone, or air-defense cannon. Given this, it should be no surprise that it first appears in English-language publications in 1938, just before the outbreak of World War II. During the war, flak quickly became an integral and productive part of the military vocabulary, with a variety of flak-related terms appearing in military slang. Cities were defended with continuous barrages of fire called flak curtains; a flak alley was a heavily defended airspace; aircrew wore flak jackets, flak vests, and flak suits; and airman could go flak happy from the stress of aerial combat and be sent to a flak shack to recover, perhaps with the help of sodium pentothal, or flak juice.
Flak also has a figurative meaning of intense, negative criticism. This sense arose in the early 1960s, as in this quotation from Fortune in April 1963:
His decision would run into political flak from Capitol Hill.
While they are distinct words with very different meanings, conflation of flak and flack may have contributed to the colorful term flak-catcher, made famous by Tom Wolfe’s 1970 book Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers. A flak-catcher is a publicist whose job it is to respond to criticism. Wolfe writes:
This man is a flak catcher. His job is to catch the flak for the No. 1 man.
Nowadays, being a flak catcher is a pretty good, if perhaps aggravating, job. That’s a big change from what the word would have meant in the skies over Europe in the early 1940s.
“flack, n.2,” Oxford English Dictionary, second edition, 1989.
“flack, v.2,” Oxford English Dictionary, additions series, 1993.
“flak, n. (also flack),” Green’s Dictionary of Slang, Chambers Harrap Publishers, 2010.
The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, vol. 1, J. E. Lighter, ed., New York: Random House, 1994, various entries.
Copyright 1997-2013, by David Wilton