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ScotM was an active (and top-notch) participant at this site for about seven months (December 2014–July 2015), but he last answered a question at EL&U on July 20, 2015, and his profile lists him as "Last seen Jan 10 '16 at 8:27."

The problem I want to resolve involves his answer to Etymology of "cut someone some slack", which he posted on February 1, 2015, and edited on February 6 of that year. Somehow, in looking for an early instance of the expression "cut [someone] slack," he fell into a Google Books glitch-trap and repeated its erroneous attribution of a quotation that included the phrase "cut slack for others' dumb opinions" to Frederick Douglass's My Bondage and My Freedom (1855). In fact, the quotation comes from a novel published in 2001. The earliest published instance of "cut [someone] some slack" that I know of is from 1968—113 years later than My Bondage and My Freedom.

Three months ago, I added a comment to ScotM's answer, pointing out the error and suggesting an edit that would remove the mistake and leave the rest of his otherwise very good answer intact—but he's not around to make the change. Meanwhile, casual readers who visit the page in question (it has racked up 10,616 page views so far) are going to come away with a seriously mistaken view of how old the expression is and where it came from, unless they read through ScotM's long answer and my comment at the end of it and my long answer (which follows his).

At this point, should I just take matters into my own hands and delete the first 92 words of ScotM's answer? Or is it better to leave things as they are and hope that ScotM will eventually revisit the site and correct the unfortunate error at the beginning of his answer?

  • If you do edit the answer (and I hope you do), note that the first link to cooperage goes to Page not Found. But what will convince you to go ahead? Unanimity here? There will never be unanimity on anything. The agreement of Mari-Lou, who is the OP? – ab2 ReinstateMonicaNow Mar 16 '17 at 23:29
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    @ab2: As you may know, I'm a copy editor by trade, so I spend a lot of time correcting various mistakes in manuscripts. When I find a mistake as major as the one in ScotM's answer in a manuscript that I'm being paid to edit, I correct it and then flag it with an explanation of the problem, so the author won't be left to wonder why a significant block of text suddenly changed radically or simply vanished. But if an error of that magnitude were to appear in the final version of the text, it would damage the author's and publisher's credibility—so correcting it isn't merely discretionary. ... – Sven Yargs Mar 18 '17 at 21:53
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    ... English Language & Usage is a volunteer-run, nonprofessional publisher that has no house style guide. EL&U accepts questions and answers from people of widely varying levels of knowledge and writing ability, and (fittingly, I think) it is cautious about imposing corrections on the content they provide. But I’m not sure how far this institutional deference extends or should extend—hence my question here about an error that seems to me to be both serious and easy to correct. ... – Sven Yargs Mar 18 '17 at 21:53
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    ... I had hoped (perhaps foolishly) for near unanimous support for an answer along the lines of Hellion’s: someone points out the error to the person who posted it, suggests a way of correcting it (in a comment that is visible to other site participants who are free to challenge it if it seems unsound), and then—after a reasonable interval of inaction by the original poster—makes the correction. That is probably what I will end up doing in this case, with the understanding that ScotM is not bound to tolerate my editing if and when he returns and dislikes the change. – Sven Yargs Mar 18 '17 at 21:53
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    I agree. Moreover, I've read several times that the poster does not own the post -- SE owns the post. Furthermore, correcting Scott's error is not something that will affect his employability, his health, his marriage or his driving record. Furtherfurthermore, he can, if he ever comes back, edit your edit. Moreover-ff-more, anyone who doesn't like your edit can edit your edit. Finally, better to ask forgiveness than permission. – ab2 ReinstateMonicaNow Mar 18 '17 at 23:07
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    @SvenYargs, in this scenario, I would treat it a little bit like a hit-and-run. I would make the correction, then leave a note for the person what I had done and how to contact me if the person does not approve. – Teacher KSHuang Mar 23 '17 at 11:08
  • Have you decided against editing/correcting the answer? Were you hoping someone else would volunteer? I would do the edit myself, but it would lack tact and elegance because I believe the entire citation with ScottM's correlated musings should be deleted, leaving the rest of the answer intact. The answer would start with the dictionary definition of slack. Oh, just reread your proposal, and you are recommending the same type of edit. No corrections, no footnotes, just deletion. Why waste time pussy footing around. – Mari-Lou A Mar 23 '17 at 13:46
  • @SvenYargs 13 to 2 is pretty close to unanimous... :-) (13 = my post plus 12 upvotes, vs two opposing posts plus zero because they have negative scores.) – Hellion Mar 23 '17 at 19:24
  • @Mari-LouA & Hellion: Thanks for your followup remarks. I still haven't received my copy of The U.S. Naval Academy: An Illustrated History, which I plan to check to see whether my own answer is faulty. My plan is to correct my answer (if necessary) and immediately thereafter edit ScotM's answer, to avoid a double bounce of the question to the top of the recent questions list. I don't treat downvotes as separate people, so my count is 15 people in favor of Hellion's answer (13 voters plus Hellion and me) versus 6 people in favor of Kit Z. Fox's answer. I take that as a pretty strong mandate. – Sven Yargs Mar 24 '17 at 0:26
  • @Hellion 13-0 votes is a strong consensus, but do remember that you have an early-bird-advantage and nobody's saying the post shouldn't be edited. The point upon which we differ is how it should be done, and your answer is the only one which does not prescribe any particular method. I surmise that's the reason your post lacks votes against it. All four of the answers which do suggest a method have 2-3 votes against them and nobody left a direct comment regarding why that is, aside from me and Sven, although Terdon did suggest my method is too cautious in chat. – Tonepoet Mar 26 '17 at 16:52
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I would say that taking matters into your own hands is appropriate at this point. You found a factual error (and have attributions to back it up), you notified the original author, you gave them plenty of time and opportunity to incorporate the suggested change. Since they have not been available, doing it for them now seems like 'the neighborly thing to do'; a little clean-up and improvement that should be welcomed if and when they come back to find it.

  • I agree. Then I would leave another comment about what I had done (and how to reverse it if the user does not approve) in case clicking the "Edit" link is not obvious to the user. – Teacher KSHuang Mar 23 '17 at 11:08
  • Are you in favour of deleting the citation (the first 92 words) or correcting the date and the reference? – Mari-Lou A Mar 23 '17 at 13:50
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Rather than remove the quotation entirely, it might be better to properly attribute it. Although the correct citation is much more recent than Frederick Douglass, it still provides reasonable orientation for the reader in the sense that it suggests "that cut slack for [me] is compressed into cut [me] slack".

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    Actually, part of the problem with the first part of ScotM's answer is that it presents "cut slack for [someone]" as a precursor to "cut [someone] slack" when there is (as far as I know) no evidence to support that theory. As noted in my answer on the main site, instances of "cut [someone] slack" go back to 1968; but the earliest instances of "cut slack for [someone]" in a Google Books search are from 1991 (four occurrences). Absent evidence to the contrary, one might hypothesize from those data points that "cut slack for [someone]" is an outgrowth of "cut [someone] slack"—not vice versa. – Sven Yargs Mar 14 '17 at 21:05
  • Still @Sven, that's his theory and his elaboration on it is suggestive that 'cutting slack' does predate 'cutting [someone] slack'. Also, it's dicey to edit an answer that drastically when it competes with your own. – Kit Z. Fox Mar 15 '17 at 11:33
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    Your comment raises two interesting points: (1) the change I recommend would remove the only theory that ScotM's answer offers as to the origin of the phrase in question; and (2) arguably, my answer to the question competes with his. In my view, (1) if a person's theory that extracting core samples from the surface of Pluto should be fairly easy is based on the mistaken notion that Pluto is composed of green cheese, the theory isn't really separable from the mistake; and (2) answers on this site don't compete—they (a) complement, or (b) needlessly repeat, or (c) go their separate ways. ... – Sven Yargs Mar 15 '17 at 17:22
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    ... If the first part of ScotM’s answer were the first part of my answer, I would want to remove the whole thing—because the hypothesis that “cut slack for [someone]” is the source of “cut [someone] some slack” rests entirely on a single, chronologically erroneous citation. And if I were no longer an active participant at this site, I would welcome the correction from someone else. But my inclinations aren’t always a good match for how other people think and feel, which is why I raised the Meta question here. – Sven Yargs Mar 15 '17 at 17:22
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I suggest cutting him some slack. :)

Just add a editorial one-liner at the top of his answer, saying that the Google Books citation was a red herring, but that it doesn't affect the force of the answer.

This is based on the answer's assertions that starting point of the etymological trail isn't very visible:

  • In Douglas's usage, cut slack seems to be used as a metaphorical set phrase, but the literal underpinning of the expression is not obvious.

  • There is no conclusive evidence establishing any of these scenarios as the etymological source for Cut me some slack.

If the rest of the answer is solid, I don't mind the admission of conjecture about the start the trail. Since conjecture has been admitted anyway, it doesn't hurt too much that the opening example serves only as motivation for the rest.

  • Out of curiosity, can you see the quotation in ScotM's link? And while we're at it, can you also see the 2001 citation in Sven's link? There is no snippet preview when I click on either of the links. – Mari-Lou A Mar 18 '17 at 11:42
  • @Mari-LouA Yes, ScotM's link worked for me at the time I answered. I clicked through to the original, then did a text search. No hits, but that could be because the original is a scanned document (no text to search). I don't see any preview on Sven's link but there's an invitation to buy the book. – Lawrence Mar 18 '17 at 11:46
  • @Mari-LouA I've just checked ScotM's link - it's still there. Click "View EBook" in the top left corner, then click the "Preview this book" link under the blurb. – Lawrence Mar 18 '17 at 11:52
  • To clarify: you can read the citation, the term in ScotM's link? the one that says ` cut slack for others' dumb opinions,`? A link that works does not mean the quotation is visible, sorry for being a bore. – Mari-Lou A Mar 18 '17 at 11:52
  • I mean, it's no longer a case of getting the dates mixed up, which I blame Google Books, the entire citation is missing from the novel itself. – Mari-Lou A Mar 18 '17 at 12:01
  • Sven says the citation i.e. the Canal form a setting for people who forgive most mistakes, cut slack for others' dumb opinions is from a 2001 novel The Hauntings of Hood Canal but I can't find it, and neither can you. Am I right? – Mari-Lou A Mar 18 '17 at 12:15
  • @Mari-LouA No, I can read the pdf document extract, and a search on the text fails - but it might have failed because the scanned document contains pictures rather than text. This is starting from the link from the title "My Bondage and My Freedom" in ScotM's answer. – Lawrence Mar 18 '17 at 13:39
  • @Mari-LouA That might also be the reason your text search failed. – Lawrence Mar 18 '17 at 13:44
  • @Mari-LouA You might want to check with Sven directly. I can only access the invitation to purchase that book, but not the text of the book without buying the book. – Lawrence Mar 18 '17 at 13:46
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This is a bit of a delicate problem.

Leaving the post in its current state violates the policies regarding attribution, and being aware of the problem obliges us to fix it not only as a matter of policy but also ethical duty to the author of the quotation. Deleting that portion of the post would change the meaning of the post which violates editing guidelines, and cause the answer to unravel as it acts to introduce and justify the relevant dictionary definitions. Changing the quotation has a similar effect to deleting it, unless we are 100% certain that Scot would analyze the replacement quotation identically, which would probably require his co-operation. If we could get his co-operation, it would be clear that we should insist that he should edit the answer to fix the problem in a way that he sees fit. I imagine that he would be more than willing to fix the problem if he knew about it and was able. Deleting the an otherwise meritorious post due to a slight mistake made by the original poster seems like too severe of a course of action to take.

Thankfully, I think there is a good compromise between deletion of the segment and maintaining the original intent which does not require us to delete the whole answer. Stack Exchange has a few fancy hypertext markup language tags, so we can strikethrough the incorrect text and leave [an editorial note in brackets]. The note should state that his original attribution was wrong, and properly attribute the original source. Surely these tags were intended to serve some sort of purpose, and I think this is an instance where they may come in useful. Since the way he originally presented the answer would still be visible, the meaning of it would remain intact while making it evident that something is wrong with it.

This is not a perfect solution. Aesthetically the amount of text that needs to be stricken out is large, and the editorial note interrupts the flow of the post. It also draws attention to the fact that the quotation was misattributed, and is not as useful of a resource as ScotM originally thought it was, which may lead to a few votes against an otherwise merituitous answer.

However, I would like to reitterate that this is probably the best compromise we have got in terms of satisfying all relevant policy, short of deleting the answer altogether, and I can't say some votes against an answer that did not perform the requisite fact checking are unmerited, especially given that many people are probably already under the impression that it was a 19th century quote, instead of a 21st century quote. We should also note that the probable cause of the error to mitigate against the effect to prevent the effect from being too severe.

  • +1 This is an excellent compromise. Let's keep in mind: Mistakes, however inadvertent and innocent, have consequences; the author of the answer has had three months to correct his mistake; when he comes back in six months from Borneo, or wherever he is, and finds a few downvotes, well, so what? It doesn't go on his resume. – ab2 ReinstateMonicaNow Mar 15 '17 at 22:36
  • @ab2 Scott has been absent since Jan 10 '16 , that's over a year. He has had no time to correct the error, because he's not been around. It's a pretty significant change, the rest of his answer hinges on that 19th century date. If the earliest sighting of "cut s/o some slack" is from the 1970s, it kinda changes everything. – Mari-Lou A Mar 16 '17 at 1:24
  • @Mari-Lou Maybe I wasn't clear. I think the mistake should be corrected. Whether Scott has had 3 months or "no time" to correct the mistake depends on whether his absence Is voluntary or involuntary. Evidence to the contrary, we should assume his absence is voluntary. In that case we are worrying more about his authorship and his rep than he is. I think Sven Yargs should use his judgment about the best way to edit the answer. If Tonepoet's suggestion looks too kludgy, then Sven can do something else. It will all be in the edit history and if Scott resurfaces, he can further edit. – ab2 ReinstateMonicaNow Mar 16 '17 at 2:04
  • @ab2 Sven has written a post on meta precisely because he feels uncomfortable about correcting this mistake, it's not a question of fixing a typo, a broken link, improving the formatting, replacing a reference; it's about changing the actual answer. Big difference. P.S Not my DV! – Mari-Lou A Mar 16 '17 at 2:29
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It's a great shame, the amount of work and research ScotM did was admirable. The answer is extremely well written, and I liked the cooperage theory, it at least explained what the slack in "cut me some slack" could have referred to.

The answer has been unaccepted and the upvote retracted because the entire post hinged on that single citation dated 1855, I hadn't realize at the time, I was enamoured by the care and originality that ScotM had taken into crafting his answer.

I'm really sorry, and if it had been me I would now be banging my head on the desktop, beating my chest, tearing out my hair and trying frantically to find another 19th century, or early 20th century citation. But the answer is not mine, and I don't think anyone can repair the crack.

In my opinion until its author returns, the answer is irreparable.

Perhaps it should be deleted.

EDIT
It is unfair to downvote an answer when its author is not available to rectify the error, and even more so when the ‘error’ originally lies with Google Books.

UPDATE

enter image description here

The inside cover says that My Bondage and my Freedom was originally printed in 1855. So That's one piece of the mystery cleared up. But I cannot find the term slack cited anywhere in the 2008 reprint, nor in the 2001 novel The Hauntings of Hood Canal, which contains the citation, according to Sven post.

enter image description here

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    I agree that the erroneously dated quotation was a springboard to the rest of the answer, but I don't agree that the rest of the answer can't stand up on its own. If you read the subsequent citations as a discussion of the elasticity of slack (so to speak), it's still a very good answer. As a site user, I strongly oppose deleting it. ScotM's research contributes to a deeper understanding of how people have used slack through the years. My only objection is to the mistake about when the phrase in question arose—and it's the kind of mistake that Google Books lulls users into making. ... – Sven Yargs Mar 16 '17 at 3:47
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    ...As a matter of fact, I am beginning to suspect that the first quotation in my answer, which Google Books assures readers is from Jack Sweetman, The U.S. Naval Academy, an Illustrated History (1979), may actually be from one of the various editions of Ross MacKenzie, Brief Points (1993–2008). I just bought a copy of this book on eBay so I can compare it to the snippet that appears in Google Books. Those snippet views are serious trouble—you just can't trust them. – Sven Yargs Mar 16 '17 at 3:47
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    @SvenYargs buying a book on Ebay to compare the date of publication with Google Books, is perhaps the most rigorous and conscientious thing I have ever heard any EL&U user do. You should set up a separate "Fund Me" page, I would be a willing benefactor :) – Mari-Lou A Mar 16 '17 at 8:26
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    It's only a partial answer without the quotation, but that would not merit deletion on its own, even if the answer was wrong. It still addresses the matter of what a slack is and how to cut it well enough, and provides useful information ScotM provided for other people's benefit. However the reason I am voting against this answer is mostly because of the edit. Despite the relative innocence of the negligence, the answer is harmfully erroneous in its current state. People can retract such votes once the error's rectified with an edit. – Tonepoet Mar 16 '17 at 14:38
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    @Tonepoet the only downvotes will come from users who have read this question on meta, so I'm saying to those potential downvoters it's not ScotM's fault. He doesn't know (if he's still alive). And if the answer is meritorious why should it be downvoted? (Seems daft to DV my edit, but OK, whatever) – Mari-Lou A Mar 16 '17 at 14:42
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    The votes are supposed to evaluate the posts, and not the posters. Although the answer may have merit to it, the overall evaluation of the answer as it stands is still negative when you consider that what may be the most important claim is indisputably wrong. Votes against it may restrain the potential negative consequences, esp. for people who check the voting ratios to see if anything's possibly objectionable, and having an overrated answer may detract attention away from other answers too. Hopefully, it won't be left alone long enough for it to matter in the grand scheme of things though. – Tonepoet Mar 16 '17 at 16:45
  • @Lawrence When I click on Sven's link "novel published in 2001", it takes me to page 19 of "The Hauntings of Hood Canal" by Jack Cady with "cut slack for others dumb opinions" highlighted. books.google.com/… – ab2 ReinstateMonicaNow Mar 18 '17 at 14:02
  • @ab2 not for me, I only see the book cover, a synopsis of the novel and in the bar above the searched item "cut slack for others dumb opinions" but within the actual text, nada. Which, isn't the first time it's happened to me, so it's probably because Google views me as an outsider, a foreigner, a non-American, which come to think of it, so is Lawrence, ack... this Trump administration... – Mari-Lou A Mar 18 '17 at 14:07
  • Your comment will get out! You'll be on the front page of the Washington Post Monday as the subject of an irate tweet. When you click on the link I gave in my comment, do you see more? – ab2 ReinstateMonicaNow Mar 18 '17 at 14:12
  • When I click on the link in your comment of 15 minutes ago, I get three hits, one is "The Hauntings of Hood Canal -- Risultati da Google Libri books.google.it/books?isbn=1429971460 - Traduci questa pagina Jack Cady - 2010 - ‎Fiction ... for people who forgive most mistakes, cut slack for others' dumb opinions, but who will not budge the thickness of a sheet of paper when it comes to essentials" – ab2 ReinstateMonicaNow Mar 18 '17 at 14:26
  • @ab2 and when I click on the link I read the book's blurb, no mention of slack. I'm not saying ir doesn't exist, I'm pointing out I cannot see the citation on my browser from where I live in italy. – Mari-Lou A Mar 18 '17 at 14:41
  • I clicked on Scott's link and searched the Douglass book for the quote. Nothing. The entire quote, as Scott gave it, does appear in "The Hauntings" book. As for being banned from the Internet, that is going to happen next Thursday to uppity women. – ab2 ReinstateMonicaNow Mar 18 '17 at 15:16
  • @Tonepoet sweet irony, the link has expired. But it doesn't matter, I am convinced the citation is visible to those living in the US. Oh, am I supposed to use it like Google? Well, hang on.. Tick...tock...tick... NOPE still don't see a thing, the page is blank and there's a yellow strip, highlighting the phrase. But the page is completely white. – Mari-Lou A Mar 18 '17 at 22:49
  • @Tonepoet OK thanks. It's right at the top of the page. – Mari-Lou A Mar 18 '17 at 22:56
  • Just realized you may have misinterpreted my last comment. About uppity women. I am one. – ab2 ReinstateMonicaNow Mar 19 '17 at 4:12

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