After I finished the Bowie book, next in line was a book that’s been sitting on my shelf, but that I have been too lazy to actually read, for a couple years now: Tom Lutz’s Doing Nothing: A History of Loafers, Loungers, Slackers, and Bums in America. A subject near and dear to my heart; these are my people, as you know, but I had no idea we had such a rich literature and history. Consider:
“Slack”1 has been around since Old English variants, as a physical property of objects like ropes. And in the seventeenth century “slacken” became a common way to denote a relaxation of activity. By the nineteenth century, a “slack” could mean a slowing or a lull in business. But 1898 is the earliest instance of “slacker” in anything like its modern sense — in the OED, when it began to replace some earlier epithets for people not pulling their loads….
Only in the late 1980s and early 1990s did “slacker” become what it is today, the widely used term for someone with a distaste for work, an identity that can be conferred or claimed, however ironically. Something very much like the slacker, however, has been around since the middle of the eighteenth century, when some young men proudly called themselves idlers and, later in the century, loungers. In the nineteenth century there were loafers. Like slacker, these names could be used as insults or adopted proudly as a protest against the way things were.
A disinclination to work is as old as work itself, as far as we can tell, certainly as old as any extant texts we have on the subject. But the slacker and his forebears, the loafer, lounger, and idler, are a bit different. Before the Industrial Revolution, the slacker as an identity, as a kind of person, did not exist. In ancient Greek, Roman, and Middle Eastern civilizations, work was by and large considered a curse, accorded dignity only to the extent that it made possible the vita contemplativa…. There could be no slackers in the modern sense — people whose identity involved their refusal to believe in the value of work — because everyone, in a way, was already against work.
A fitting subject for a quiet Sunday in the Town…but like a good lounger, I have playoff basketball to watch. More on this topic later.
1. All slack, of course, comes from “Bob.” Thanks, “Bob”!