The dark and troubled past of “sleazy”

The earliest record of sleazy likens the human brain to beer left out in the sun. 

On Capitol Hill yesterday, FBI Director James Comey confirmed that his agency is probing Russian interference in the 2016 US election. During his hearing, Denny Heck, a Democratic representative for Washington, commented on the state of the investigation: “We’re not indicting anyone, merely laying out some of the evidence and the facts, dirty though they be, sleazy though they be.”

Heck isn’t alone in using sleazy for political effect, though: It’s been a favorite modifier of politicians and political journalists since at least the 1980s. But where does this word sleazy come from?

sleazy.jpg
Sleazy was originally “fuzzy,” like the hairs of a caterpillar. (Pixabay)

This is your brain on sleaze

In 1644, Sir Kenelm Digby, an English courtier, diplomat, and natural philosopher, published two treatises, Of the Nature of Bodies and Of the Nature of Mans Soule. In the first treatise, Digby provides a very colorful description of the brain and, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the earliest known use of sleazy:

…the brain is a substance composed of watry parts mingled with earthy ones: which kind of substances we see are usually full of strings, and so in strong hard beere, and in vinegar, and in other liquors of the like nature, we see (if they be exposed to the Sunne) little long flakes, which make an appearance of Wormes or Maggots floating about. The reason whereof is, that some dry parts of such liquors, are of themselves as it were hairy or sleasy, that is, have little downy part, such as on the legs of flies, or upon caterpillars, or in little locks of wooll…

Bugs and booze? You might say Digby had a fairly sleazy view of our brain, but it took several centuries for sleazy to get to this meaning.

Sleazy salespersons?

As Digby’s description shows, sleazy first meant “fuzzy” or “having little, prickly hairs.” A few short years later, sleazy was characterizing things as “slight” and “insubstantial.” As the OED records, in 1648 there was a reference to “vain” and “sleazy opinions about religion”; in 1650, to “sleazy stuff…such cob-web compositions.” 

A few short decades later, sleazy was calling fabrics as “thin” and “flimsy.” In the 1670 edition of his Glossographia, a seminal work of early English lexicography, Thomas Blount defined Sleasie Holland (with Holland referring a kind of linen imported from the Netherlands): “Sleasie Holland, common people take to be all Holland, which is slight or ill-wrought.” In that same entry, Blount adds the genuine article “is properly Sleasie or Silesia Linen cloth, which is made in [and] Comes from the Country Silesia in Germany,” as the OED cites.

Based on Blount, many etymologists have concluded sleazy is a corruption of Silesia, the Latin name for Schleisen, once a region in eastern Germany but now largely part of Poland, known for its fine linen cloths in Renaissance Europe. Was Sleasie Holland, then, some kind of cheap, crappy knock-off of Silesian textile? If this is the case, sleazy begins as a “fine linen cloth made in Silesia” but devolves to a “flimsy and thin” imitation product, dragged further in the mud with its sense of “sordid” and “squalid” today.

The OED doubts this etymology. We find sleazy for “fuzzy” and “insubstantial” in the 1640s, not identified with Silesian fabrics until the 1670s. These two forms of sleazy could be very well unrelated.

Sleaze factors 

The modern sense of sleazy – “dirty,” “dilapidated,” “depraved” – doesn’t emerge in the record until the 1940s, back-formed into sleaze by the 1960s. This later date led lexicographer Eric Partridge to propose sleazy as a blend of slimy and greasy. If this is so, our current sleazy represents a third independent formation of sleazy in the lexicon (that little sleazeball).

In his Political Dictionary, William Safire observed that sleaze and sleaze factor, used especially for “corruption,” take off in US political discourse during the 1980s. Among other choice examples, he cites a 1980 Washington Post article: “Public perceptions may lump all 535 House and Senate members together in a great ball of sleaze, but in the real world of Capitol Hill it is not that way.” And slang lexicographer Jonathon Green documents a den of derivatives, including: sleazemonger (1960s, peddler of trashy pornography), sleazo (1970s, a disgusting person, sexually promiscuous woman), sleazebag (1980s, a disreputable individual), and sleazehole (1990s, a seedy bar or club).

But perhaps Partridge’s portmanteau was onto something. Sleazy’s initial cluster of sl- calls up slime, slop, sludge, and other slippery, slithery words, and its z exudes grease, ooze, and pus. Is sleazy just a case of sound symbolism, a word whose sounds convey its own sense? After all, fuzzy, one of the earliest meanings of sleazy, behaves similarly – also of unknown origin first appearing in the 17th century.

Sleazy‘s questionable background check aside, one thing’s for sure. There’s a reason politicians like Denny Heck cotton to sleazy: Its slimy and greasy sound certainly make for quite the vivid and forceful rhetoric.

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