Donald Trump Jr. stepped in some, er, dirt this week when the New York Times revealed he knowingly met with a Russian lawyer who promised dirt on Hillary Clinton as part of the Kremlin’s effort to help Trump.
Where does the word dirt come from, and when did it start referring to “compromising information”? As it turns out, we really don’t want to get our hands dirty with etymological dirt.
Dirt, in a not so polite word, originally means “shit.” For its first two records of dirt, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) cites the Early English Poems and Lives of the Saints (~1300). One passage refers to “swine-is dritte,” or pig’s excrement; the other, to “drit and ding,” or dirt and dung. Early on, as the evidence suggests, dirt was both “dirt” and “dung.”
And as you may have noticed, dirt was drit in Middle English. (Drit even sounds messier, doesn’t it?) By the late 1400s, English flipped the R and I in a common process called metathesis, which we’ve previously seen in words like curd, curl, and task. There’s currently no record of dirt as such in Old English, leading etymologists to conclude that the word was borrowed directly from the Old Norse drit, “excrement.” They point to the Dutch dreet and Flemish drets as further evidence.
Old English does have some dirt on dirt: the verb drite, “to defecate,” or as the OED more squeamishly puts it, “to void or drop excrement; to stool.” With forms found across the Germanic languages, drite survived in Scottish English.
Indo-European scholars are always eager to hit etymological pay dirt, though. In dirt and drite they find Slavic, Russian, and Greek cognates for a Proto-Indo-European root meaning “to have diarrhea.” (And you thought the Trump administration was leaky.)
English dirt, of course, fertilized many later meanings. By the 1350s, dirt denigrated “anything worthless.” By the early 1500s, the adjective dirty described anything “foul or unclean,” with the “smutty” sense emerging by the end of that century. And by the 1690s, dirt softened to a more colloquial term for “mud, soil, or earth.” Dirt-cheap, or as inexpensive as dirt, is attested by 1821.
It’s Ernest Hemingway, though, who’s credited with spreading the “gossip” sense of dirt. In his 1926 novel The Sun Also Rises, narrator Jake Barnes asks Robert Cohn:
“Do you know any dirt?” I asked.
“None of your exalted connections getting divorces?”
Private scandal, as the metaphor goes, dirties one’s public image and reputation. Dirt, then, is like talking shit—in an etymological manner of speaking.