Nick et al, Contrary to what some people and sources say (see Facts on File
and Safire’s 1994 quote below), I am close to certain that CUT SOME SLACK
and CUT SOMEONE SOME SLACK
did not originate as a nautical terms, nor were they ever used among ‘serious’ sailors. It is not included in any of the several nautical dictionaries I checked nor could I find an actual example of it being used as a sailing term.
I spent my youth 1940s-60s on boats and no one ever asked me, nor did I ever hear anyone ask anyone, to CUT SOME SLACK
or CUT THEM SOME SLACK
. And I don’t recall hearing the phrases in any context in either college or the Army in the 1960s, and would estimate that I probably first heard them in the 1980s. Cassell’s
dates it from the 1960s, Chapman’s Dictionary of American Slang
from the 1980s, and the earliest example I unearthed was from 1974 (see below).
But most damning for the nautical theory is the result of a phone call to my brother-in-law, Chuck Gates, this morning. He is steeped in the history of sailing and has been involved in sailing and racing since he was a tot (in the 1950s). He has, among many other sailing experiences, competed in every major sailing race in the world, and, in fact, was rated one of the top 10 sailors in the world by Yachting Magazine
, sailed the South Pacific with his girlfriend for one glorious year, and is one of the skippers of the expedition yacht the (Pelagic
), which this past summer attempted to navigate theNorthwest Passage
(but unfortunately failed – the ice wasn’t cooperating). And I think you get the picture. His response to my question was an emphatic – CUT SOME SLACK
and CUT SOMEONE SOME SLACK
are not nautical terms nor, to his knowledge, have they ever been!
From the information I was able to find on the subject, I would tend to go with the idea that the ‘slackness’ in CUT SOME SLACK
refers to the Standard English definition of ‘slack’ meaning not tense or taut (‘a slack rope,’ ‘slack muscles,’ etc.), loose, with no particular reference to the nautical. This seems to be endorsed by Cassell’s
(below) whose explanation doesn’t absolutely rule out a sailing origin, but certainly doesn’t promote it either. And since ‘nautical’ would seem to be the obvious choice, the lack of its mention there would seem to me to be equivalent to a ‘no’ vote.
In any event, the expressions CUT SOME SLACK
and CUT SOMEONE SOME SLACK
are not very old and didn’t appear in print (it is said – see below) until the mid 1900s (earliest I found was from 1974 - see quote below). And Wiz, your African-American sense seems to be on the mark, at least according to Cassell’s
Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang
CUT SOME SLACK
verb (originally U.S. Black
) 1) [1960s and still in use] To ease the pressure upon, to permit the subject to relax. [[But where did U.S. blacks get the ‘cut’ and the ‘slack’ from? That is the question. Perhaps the answer is from a slang meaning of the word CUT
(see definition below) and the Standard English meaning of SLACK
, that which hangs loose]].
[1950s and still in use]: Freedom, leeway, relief of pressure; thus give some slack
, to let someone relax, to stop pressuring. [from Standard English ‘slack,’ that which hangs loose].
Dictionary of American Slang
CUT someone SOME SLACK
verb phrase 1980s: To stop pressuring or importuning someone; let someone be; Clinton should lie low for a while, and the rest of us should cut him some slack
—National Public Radio news / I probably cut him more slack than I have with other guys
The following may not be the same CUT
, but then again maybe it is – it sort of fits:
verb: Tolerate or manage. (Dictionary of American Regional English, Historical Dictionary of American Slang
verb [late 19th century and still in use] (originally U.S.
): To manage, to deal with (difficult situations) (Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang
<1899 “Hello, there, pal . . . how’re CUTTIN’ it this morning?”—‘Tales’ by Cullen, page 62>
<1928 “Can’t CUT IT, said the turnkey.”—‘Little Caesar,’ page 137
<1965 “OK, I just can’t cut cream cheese”—‘Dictionary of Regional English’>
On the other hand, the following does say it is an allusion to a sail (but the rope could be on anything). However, since I was unable to find an example earlier than the purported 1950-60s black usage and my 1974 black usage), and in light of my above comments, I remain unconvinced about a nautical origin – which I think is the easy answer some accepted without doing any serious checking. But perhaps others may be able to unearth something that I missed and prove me wrong:
Facts on File Dictionary of Clichés
CUT SOMEONE SOME SLACK
: To give someone more time or more of a chance, to ease up on someone. This term, dating from the mid-1900s, alludes to the slackening of tautness in a rope or sail.
Ken G – March 9, 2007
<1974 “But I don't want the service to be too dead, you understand. I want people to get happy the same way they do when CE is up there preaching. ‘When he's preaching self-hate and nigger lies?’ Antar asks. ‘You don't even know him, man. CUT SOME SLACK, huh?’—‘Look What They Done to My Song: A Novel’ (1974) by John McCluskey, page 233> [[Book is a humorous depiction of jazz music in Boston in the 1960s by a noted black author]]
<1988 “In other words: OK, so the guy didn’t follow protocol. He’s a newcomer to the political game. Let’s CUT HIM SOME SLACK while he gets his team together, even though he’s a Democrat and we’ve got the upper hand.”—‘Syracuse Herald Journal’ (New York), 6 April, page 14>
<1994 “The noun slacker — from the adjective slack, meaning ‘loose’ — first appeared in 1898 to refer go ‘one who avoids work or physical exercise; a shirker.” During World War I, it was a derogation of anyone avoiding military service, including conscientious objectors. In World War II, it was used interchangeably with draft dodger. Since the late 1960’s, it has regained its original, general meaning as a second sense, . . . The harsh edge of the word may have been softened by the influence of CUT HIM SOME SLACK, derived form loosening a taut rope in sailing, its meaning extended to ‘ease up on him; allow room for maneuver.’”—‘On Language’ by William Safire, ‘New York Times,’ 3 July, page SM8>
<2003 “‘There were some details in that briefing that were flawed,’ Christopher E. Isham, chief of investigative projects for ABC News, said of Mr. Powell’s case at the United Nations. ‘ But the overall thrust of that briefing was consistent with our reporting, so there may be a little bit of a tendency to CUT HIM SOME SLACK.’”—‘New York Times,’ 22 March, page B10>