Skip to main content

Here's a toast to the charming alchemy whereby two words are forged into a single pun. Many are awkward enough that they don't catch on, but when one of them works - such as crackberry, comparing the obsession with using the electronic BlackBerry to the addictive power of crack cocaine - its staying power can be great.

A witty example was bandied about last week on Nora Young's CBC Radio show Spark. Evgeny Morozov, custodian of a blog called Net Effect, spoke of Internet users who imagine themselves to be hard-working activists when all they do is press a key to forward an online petition to their contact list. As others cheerfully forward the petition, it becomes the Flying Dutchman of the Internet, with no place to land but with many overtaxed in-boxes to haunt. The word given to this blithe button-pushing is slacktivism, a cross between slacker and activism. It's a baked Alaska of a word, combining the heat of activism with the coolness of barely lifting a finger.

Slacking has a long history, though presumably someone other than a slacker had to record it. The adjective "slack" has been traced back more than a millennium to Beowulf, the Anglo-Saxon epic poem that has been the basis of so many bad movies. Even then the word meant lazy or lacking in energy, and had arrived from the ancient Germanic root slakaz, which also produced the Latin word laxus (meaning loose) and, eventually, the English words lax and relax, both of which slackers know well. By 1530, "slack" had found employment as a verb meaning to shirk one's obligations. "Whye slacke you your busynesse thus?" Jehan Palsgrave wrote in that year.

The expression "slack off" arrived by 1806, in the sense of making something looser, and by 1884 the phrase had acquired the modern sense of exerting as little energy as possible. "Slacker" was born soon after. The Westminster Gazette in London used it in a sentence in 1898: "I said it was a silly thing to do and they retorted that I was a 'slacker.' "

The word was appearing in print by 1990 to describe allegedly apathetic and aimless members of Generation X, the folks born after 1960, but it took Richard Linklater's 1991 film Slacker to popularize the use. In that year, he told The New York Times that, in the newspaper's paraphrase, a slacker "is a Texas nickname for the type of non-student who clusters around the University of Texas campus eking out a marginal income while leading a quasi-college existence."

According to author Paul McFedries, it was in 1985 that "slacktivism" first appeared, but the earliest use I could find was in 2000, in a publication called U-Wire, which referred to "television host, filmmaker, author and self-confessed slacker-activist (slacktivist, if you will) Michael Moore." An article by Monty Phan in Newsday on Feb. 27, 2001, associated it with the people who fire off petitions. "Those who wage the seemingly futile war to rid the Internet of such e-mails have given a name to the practice of keeping such e-mails alive. They call it 'slacker activism,' or 'slacktivism' (the term preferred by slacker typists.)"

The word is also occasionally spelled "slactivism," as it was on the CBC website entry about the Spark episode. It's almost better that way. Not bothering to search for that pesky "k" on the keyboard is what slacking is all about.

Mental about firearms An electronic flyer from Staples recently offered to sell customers an "Office Star Task Chair, Gunmental Fabric," for $119.99. Clearly it would have been perfect for buyers who are really, really passionate about their firearms. But the text below the heading more accurately noted that this "fabric task chair with loop arms" has "gunmetal colour fabric." So no little pattern of Uzis and Colts, then.