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Teenagers. All the literature tells you one thing and one thing only – that whatever they are doing, give them a break, cut them some slack, it's normal.

From the novel, Apple Tree Yard

I'm curious about the origins of to cut some slack. I know slacks are American English for trousers or pants, and a slacker is a lazy person. But what is a slack and how does one "cut" it?

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    slack is also the opposite of taut. A taut line or leash doesn't allow much freedom of movement. Putting some slack in the line allows more freedom of movement. My guess is that this comes from sailing. – Jim Jan 31 '15 at 23:37
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    Poor Pip gets caught in the slack whale line in Moby-Dick. An uncredible answer, elsewhere, makes a good point about angry whales pulling the boat under and that to 'cut slack' is an old whaling term. – Mazura Feb 1 '15 at 2:00
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    Cut me some slack is probably not a metaphor of rope, but more likely of cooperage. Coopers, maintained a stock of two qualities of staves to build their barrels: high quality tight staves for barrels to hold water; and low quality slack staves, for barrels to hold dry goods. When a cooper said to his supplier, "Cut me some slack [staves]," the supplier understood that the quality expectation was significantly less. The expression came to mean: lower your expectations please. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cooper_%28profession%29 Searching for evidence. – ScotM Feb 1 '15 at 3:30
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    books.google.com/… – ScotM Feb 1 '15 at 3:31
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    Another meaning of "slack" is the gravelly coal dust that is left over after the sizable lumps of coal are taken. This is low-quality and hard to manage to produce a steady fire. Of course a ton of slack would be a lot cheaper than a ton of lump coal too. "Cut" might then mean "mix" also - "I can't afford quality coal, mix in some slack". Total speculation, but another avenue for exploration. – Joffan Feb 5 '15 at 18:34
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+50

It is possible that the set phrase "cut someone some slack" is simply a metaphorical use of cut combined with a metaphorical use of slack:

Slack

ADJECTIVE

1.0 Not taut or held tightly in position; loose:

2.0 Having or showing laziness or negligence:

Slack can intuitively apply to any standard metaphorically: neglect your standard or do not hold on tightly to your standard.

Cut

3.2 Separate (something) into two; sever:

Cut can intuitively apply to any standard metaphorically: Separate a standard for me. The two words complement each other, so that Cut me some slack renders the meaning:

"Separate some loosely held standard for me."

There are many plausible imaginative practical scenarios for metaphorical application:

  • Cooperage
  • Maritime: Mixed metaphor with "Give me some slack."
  • Masonry: Documents of the Assembly of the State of New York, Volume 3: 1847,page 439.
  • Colliery: Minutes of Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers, Volume 131: 1898, page 144.
  • Hanging: Adventures of the Comte de la Muette During the Reign of Terror: 1898, pages 100-101.
  • Electric Transmission: Bulletin, Volume 4, By National Electric Light Association: 1911, page 456.

There is no conclusive evidence establishing any of these scenarios as the etymological source for Cut me some slack. It is quite possible that the broad practical use of the phrase cut slack established the metaphorical application as a set phrase. If there was a single practical source of the metaphorical application, the cooperage application is most likely, for two reasons: it establishes an acceptable lower standard, and it was used far more extensively than any other practical application.

Coopers, maintained a stock of two qualities of staves to build their barrels: high quality tight staves for barrels to hold liquid goods; and low quality slack staves, for barrels to hold dry goods:

The Packages, Volume 24, November 1921, Page 36

The terms "tight cooperage stock" and "slack cooperage stock" are applied by the trade to staves, beading and hoops used by coopers in the manufacture or assembly of hogshead barrels, kegs, kits and firkins. Tight cooperage stock pertains to containers for liquids, and slack cooperage stock to containers for solids.

The slack cooperage industry was nearly twice as extensive as the tight cooperage industry, producing 50% more value with a significantly less valuable product:

Scientific American: Supplement, Volume 88

The slack end of the business is the larger, judged by the quantity of wood required to manufacture the product... The value of the slack stock used in the country is nearly fifty percent more than the value of tight material.

The forestry industry also referred to lower quality timber as slack cooperage blocks. To cut slack cooperage blocks referred to harvesting specific species of trees that meet lower slack cooperage quality specifications.

Forest Farmer Manual: 1955 - Page 66

Generally several cuttings are made. In hardwood forests, the buyer or the owner usually takes out sawlogs or veneer blocks first. He might cut slack cooperage blocks or cross ties next, and finally make pulp- wood and fuel from the tops.

Landowners, brokers, foresters, loggers, sawyers, suppliers, coopers, merchants, advertisers, machinists and government regulators in America all expressed a common notion of cut slack as lower acceptable quality standard. When a merchant said to his cooper, "Make me a slack [barrel]," they both understood that the quality expectation was significantly less than a tight barrel. When a cooper said to his supplier, "Bring me some slack [staves]," they both understood that the quality expectation was significantly less than tight staves. When the supplier said to his sawyer, "Cut me some slack [stock]," they both understood that the quality expectation was significantly less than tight stock. When the sawyer said to his logger, "Cut me some slack [logs]," they both understood that the quality expectation was significantly less than tight logs.

Advertisers made clear distinctions between all things tight and all things slack. Machinists designed and built separate mills to cut slack cooperage materials:

Cooperage: A Treatise on Modern Shop Practice and Methods, 1910, Page 194

Mills for the manufacture of slack stock are of various types...

The Federal Government established separate regulations for knife-cut slack staves.

In America, at least nine extensive interrelated industries were routinely exposed to the literal expression: cut slack with the connotation of acceptably lower quality standards. The cultural significance of cooperage from the 18th through 20th centuries supports a legitimate assumption:

A a metaphorical application of the prevalent cooperage expression:

  • "Cut me/you/him/us/them some slack [X]."

intuitively becomes:

  • A lower standard is acceptable.

This is precisely what people mean when they say, "Cut me some slack!" metaphorically:

Your tight adherence to a higher standard is not necessary; a lower standard is acceptable!

The cooperage metaphor cannot be sited conclusive as the source of "Cut me some slack," but at minimum, the cooperage lingo extensively supported and reinforce the intuitive metaphorical application of cut slack in the culture, making the set phrase more suitable as an idiomatic catch phrase.

Currently in Google Book search, the earliest confirmed use of "Cut [x] some slack" was the testimony of a young person explaining his perception of police aggression, transcribed in 1966:

Field Surveys - Issue 4, Volume 2 - Page 133

Just the colored cop will do all the, you know, raising sand... Other cop[s] will just sit back, you know. And he'll try and cut you some slack, but the colored cop won't, you know.

Emphasis mine

http://www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~flbbm/heritage/cooper/barrelmaking.htm

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    and now I want "Cut me some tight" to be a real phrase, too – Gus Feb 3 '15 at 20:25
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    Can you provide evidence to support your very plausible opinion that Most likely when a cooper said to his supplier, "Cut me some slack [staves]," the supplier understood that the quality expectation was significantly less. The expression came to mean: Lower your expectations please. – Dan Feb 5 '15 at 11:12
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    Partly tongue in cheek. My self-generated interpretation of the phrase would be used conversationally like this: Person1 (sounding surprised) - "Wow, you really did a great job" Person2 (annoyed that Person1 is surprised)- "Hey, cut me some tight" – Gus Feb 6 '15 at 15:01
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    The quotation that your answer attributes to Frederick Douglass's My Bondage and My Freedom (1855) is actually from Jack Cady's The Hauntings of Hood Canal (2011). So the first part of your answer is incorrect. I recommend editing the answer to delete the Douglass references and pick up at the words "[T]he literal underpinning of the expression..." in paragraph 3. – Sven Yargs Dec 12 '16 at 7:14
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    Contrary to my comment above, The Hauntings of Hood Canal was published in 2001, not 2011. My apologies for the typo. – Sven Yargs Mar 14 '17 at 19:40
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One early match in a Google Books search for "cut me some slack" occurs in a glossary purportedly from Jack Sweetman, The U.S. Naval Academy, an Illustrated History (1979) [snippet]:

Slack — reduced discipline; see Cut (Me) Some Slack.

Unfortunately, we can't see "Cut (Me) Some Slack" because the book refuses to show a snippet view of that entry. And further research leads me to suspect that the snippet shown is actually from a mid-1990s edition of Ross MacKenzie, Brief Points, which (unlike Sweetman's book) does have a glossary of Naval Academy terms.

In any event, the sense of cut in this instance appears to be meaning 15.a. in J. E. Lighter, Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang (1994):

15.a. to favor with; to give. [Example:] 1972–76 Durden No Bugles 8: Aw, Sarge, cut us a break.

So "cut me some slack" = "favor me with reduced discipline" in 1970s (or 1990s) Middie-speak.

Robert Chapman & Barbara Kipfer, Dictionary of American Slang, third edition (1995) says "cut ... a break" was in use "by 1970s" and "cut ... some slack" was "1980s." That book interprets "cut [someone] some slack" as meaning "To stop pressuring or importuning someone; let someone be."

I haven't found any reference work that offers an explanation of what "cut some slack" might have meant originally, with actual slack and actual cutting in play. It is common for people working together on a rope to urge one another to "leave some slack" in the rope when possible, but I haven't come across any formal confirmation of this usage in connection with "cut ... some slack."

The Random House slang dictionary has only examples of "cut [someone] a break," not "cut [someone] some slack," but the meaning of the two phrases seems to be extremely similar.


Early confirmed Google Books matches

Another oldish Google Books match is from Revista Chicano-Riqueña, volume 7 (1979):

TERESA: I'm going to miss you, you big tonto. MANOLO: Who's tonto? TERESA: You are. MANOLO: Cut me some slack, mujer. TERESA: Tonto.

...

MANOLO: Chale. I don't care about that. DOMINGO: But there are doctors and clinics... MANOLO: ¡Ya! I said no! DOMINGO: Then why don't you go along with el Louie? MANOLO: Cut me some slack will you? DOMINGO: You're scared aren't you? I can see you are scared.

Earlier still is this extract from Wyoming Highway Department Public Information Office, The Roadrunner (1976) [combined snippets]:

...the officer cut him some slack. Then he went on to say how poorly he was treated and how tight the handcuffs were and how they hurt his wrists. He commented that he was peaceful and didn't need to be cuffed. He went on about how he had how he had to take the time to go to Cheyenne to appear in court and the money it cost him, etc.

By this time, I'm sure you can see why my heart was breaking in two for the guy. I let him have his say, and then proceeded to set the record straight.

And from Flying, volume 98 (1976) [combined snippets]:

Someone else had once taught me that good pilots don't accept a descent from ATC unless they are ready for it and know where they are. There are a lot of hard mountains in that area, fellas, so when we ask you to assure us of terrain clearance—we know it's still our responsibility to know that in spite of that nasty TWA mess—but cut us some slack, huh?

Neither of the 1976 magazine dates is definite, but both are circumstantially plausible. Several earlier would-be matches are clearly incorrectly dated in the Google Books database.


Early confirmed newspaper database matches

An Elephind newspaper database search finds five matches involving "cut [someone] some slack" from the 1970s—one from 1978, one from 1977, two from 1975, and one from 1972.

From "Reader Supports Driver; Backs Humorus Comment," in the [Kent, Ohio] Daily Kent Stater (May 31, 1978):

So, the next time you use the convenience of riding a campus bus, before you get on, cut the driver some slack. Maybe he’s more human than you think. (Anyway, if you’re at all good-looking, maybe he’s checking you out, too!)

From John Marchese, "Marijuana Use in Dormitories," in the [Denton, Texas] North Texas Daily (February 18, 1977):

"The first time I catch someone, I cut him some slack. If I catch him again then I'll have to take him to the director of housing."

Other dormitories are not so lenient, but most RAs "cut some slack" on the first offense.

From "Early Out During Xmas," in the [Temple, Texas] Fort Hood Sentinel (December 4, 1975):

Reserve component personnel undergoing active training and officers involuntarily separating on specified dates as directed by DA [Department of the Army] will separate regardless of the policy.

The policy, however, cuts some slack for local commands. Officers who are involved in priority operations may be retained until their normal ETS [expiration of term of service] date if it is necessary.

From "Misclassifieds," in the [Houston, Texas] Rice Thresher (April 24, 1975):

Rob—cut me some slack!—Graz.

Leiter—Cut me some slack.— Rob.

And from "Smoking Dopes," in the [State College, Pennsylvania] Daily Collegian (November 9, 1972):

I suppose the reader may be asking himself, "doesn't this guy appreciate a cheap drunk; a chance to get up on quality hash for free; an opportunity to groove on Isaac [Hates], while getting vicariously stoned? "At the risk of sounding like an ingrate" —Hell no, I keenly resent it!

I see three possible means of rectifying this respiratory rape:

  1. Students attending concerts can cut the non-heads in attendance some slack by leaving their "J's" at home instead of ruthlessly bludgeoning these fellow students into submission with them.

These five instances from 1972–1978 (all of which come from U.S. university or military base sources) seem to use the expression "cut [someone] a break" in the still-current sense of "go easy on [someone]," "be lenient with [someone]," or "give [someone] someone some leeway."

And finally, as Jacob Lyles points out in a comment beneath this answer, a list of new expressions in Idioma, volumes 5–6 (1968), page 58, includes this entry (and translation):

Hey, man, cut me some slack. [Translation:] Hey, buddy, take it easy.

A more accurate translation of this wording might be "Hey, buddy, loosen up on me."

  • Super! I would have sworn the expression was dated from the 40s or 50s. I'm quite astonished to discover it's so "new", finding this expression in a very British novel written by someone who grew up in the East Midlands was also a bit of a surprise. – Mari-Lou A Feb 1 '15 at 7:50
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    Have you tried searching for "to give (someone) some slack"? There's the expression "give me a break" which has a similar meaning to "cut some slack". – Mari-Lou A Feb 1 '15 at 7:57
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    I just did a quick check and "give [me] some slack" is indeed older. One example, from Memo—Go Fishing, dates to 1931, supposedly, and refers to catching a fish: "I was afraid every minute that the hook wouldn't hold and eventually, when I got this still milling and resentful nine-pounder close to the canoe, Bill said: "Give him some slack." The same advice is offered elsewhere in connection with dog training, horse training, working as a longshoreman, etc., etc. Of course, in those cases "give him some slack" is meant literally. Good point, Mari-Lou A. – Sven Yargs Feb 1 '15 at 8:16
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    For what it's worth, etymyonline dates this usage to 1968 (see: etymonline.com/index.php?term=slack&allowed_in_frame=0), so this origin is plausible. I'm sending the maintainer an email for his source. – Jacob Lyles Feb 6 '15 at 0:30
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    The owner of etymyonline says "You can find it in a list of new expressions in Idioma vol. 5-6 (1968)" – Jacob Lyles Feb 7 '15 at 0:25
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GIVE ME SOME SLACK

Still very much in use today and probably thought by most people as being relatively modern in origin, the phrase ‘give me some slack’ or ‘cut me some slack’ (meaning make allowances to complete something) is actually hundreds of years old. Tying a ship to a pier was no easy feat and took two teams of men armed with mooring lines. As one line was pulled to haul the ship closer the other line was released or ‘given slack’. The process would go on until the ship was properly aligned.

http://www.harbourguides.com/news.php/NAUTICAL-SAYINGS-CUT-ME-SOME-SLACK

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    I found the comment posted in the link to be quite persuasive... – Mari-Lou A Feb 4 '15 at 11:59
1

Without thinking about it, I always felt it had to do with rope, because it was a common saying in the Navy around 1968. I meant "give me a break- ease up on me."

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    How about supporting your answer with a reference? – macraf Apr 21 '16 at 0:23
0

Cut somebody some slack (American & Australian informal):

  • to allow someone to do something that is not usually allowed, or to treat someone less severely than is usual.
    Officials have asked the Environmental Protection Agency to cut Utah some slack in enforcing the Clean Air Act.

According to Etymonline:

slack: (early 14c., "cessation" (of pain, grief, etc.), from slack (adj.)

  • slang: cut (someone) some slack (1968).

I think 'cut' is used to mean 'reduce' (the pain, tension etc.)

Ngram: cut some slack (American English corpus) enter image description here

  • @Josh61- I think you read it wrong... the expression "cut some slack" is not connected to the definition you provided in your answer, but to the following: "a loose end of rope or sail" - which appears later in the same paragraph. My personal instinct is that the expression hints at someone being unjustly hanged (for some offense) and begs to loosen the rope. – Oldbag Feb 1 '15 at 0:24
  • Oh, well suit yourself. You could have legitimized updating your answer because you found "new" evidence which links cut a deal with cut some slack. (That's what I would have done) – Mari-Lou A Nov 2 '15 at 11:33
  • It is not a question of suiting myself; the origin of 'cut' used in 'cut a deal' has little/nothing to do with my (wrong) answer here. How can I reasonably fit it into my context? A correct answer and other useful ones have already been given. – user66974 Nov 2 '15 at 13:48
0

"Give me some slack", in the figurative sense, appears to have been used in The Movement Toward a New America by Mitchell Goodman in 1970:

"For three weeks in a row, 'Sky Pilot' was number one in Bien Hoa. I keep thinking of the line, 'A young soldier so ill/Looks at the sky pilot, remembers the words, "Thou Shall Not Kill".' Man, give me some slack, huh. Thank God for the sense of sound."—An MP in Vietnam.

And this appears to be attributed to Rolling Stone, 11/9/68.

"Cut him some slack" appears in Die nigger die! by Herbert Rap Brown in 1970:

Now, if the brother couldn't come back behind that, I usually cut him some slack (depending on time, place and his attitude). We learned what the white folks call verbal skills. We learned how to throw them words together.

Occurrences of "give me some slack", in the literal sense, go back to 1908, but "cut me/him some slack" doesn't seem to have had much literal use.

  • Where do you think slack originates from? Is it a naval, sailing term? Or something totally different? – Mari-Lou A Mar 28 '17 at 9:57
  • @Mari-LouA - Ngram finds show that "give me/him some slack" is a term used in several contexts -- naval, for letting out on a rope, workmen in trees or on tall building, for similarly letting out rope, and horsemen, for loosening the reins. These are all obvious literal uses. – Hot Licks Mar 28 '17 at 11:32
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Your question actually requires resolving two questions

  1. etymology of idiomatic use of cut
  2. etymology of idiomatic cut some slack

Cut

I can only respond within my own cultural environment for the idiomatic use of the word cut.

Cutting covenant = cutting a deal

Genesis 15:18

ביום ההוא כרת יי את אברם ברית
In that day cut the LORD with Abram a covenant.

The use of the Hebrew word cut to represent "cutting a deal" is repeated at least 15 times in the Bible. Psalm 105:9 speaks of the LORD cutting an oath with Isaac.

OTOH, even for Christians who read the Bible in English or any other language besides Hebrew, and the word cut is not obvious in most English Bibles, they do promote the idiom cut in stone as an idea of religious origin, since the tablets of the commandments were first cut in stone.

Regardless if you like it or not, we can safely say many English words and idioms have biblical origins. If biblical origins were not the first use of the idiomatic use of the word cut, I believe the popularity of such idiomatic use would never have taken off if not for the prevalent and popular understanding of biblical concept of cutting covenant and commandments in stone.

Similarly, I believe that the popularity of idiomatic phrase cut me a deal would not have taken off if not for the latent religious concept.

Slack

Slack as a spontaneous idiomatic idea should probably have been in use since humans acquired speech.

The idiom Let me some slack, is a phrase that is spontaneous to every culture, not just to English.

Where slack has come to mean lax, lack of stringency. It could well have come from old germanic origins to mean slag (dross) - i.e., unwanted residue.

  • Don't overwork me to have me remove every bit of slag. Allow me some slag.

With the popularity of biblical perspective in the English speaking world, one could well expect people to transfer the phrase

Let/allow me some slack

to

Cut me some slack.

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    I have a feeling my answer will annoy trigger-happy down-voters. – Blessed Geek Feb 1 '15 at 7:56
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    Thank you for picking up on the usage of "cut" in your answer, but I doubt the meaning of cut as in "to reduce" or "to allow" derives from the Bible. I have never heard of the idiom "let me some slack", I think you should find some evidence that proves it existed prior to "cut some slack". – Mari-Lou A Feb 1 '15 at 8:06
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    After a mere eight months an upvote for the Biblical origin of "cut a deal", which has cropped up in this question today – Mari-Lou A Nov 2 '15 at 7:38

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