"Dirty" Words I
Bill Long 2/20/08
Not a Swear Word Among Them...
It is striking to me, as I study words, how many words we have in English to describe the refuse or discarded remains of something. By walking through them patiently, we have a sense not only of the original field in which they were used but of the possibilities for figurative use of them in our world today. Let me list several of them: scoria, frass, oose, slag, kerf, recrement, limature, refuse, feces, ordure, dung, dross, offal, dregs, slag, scum, and offscouring. I suppose if you used these all in rapid succession in speaking to someone, you would be shown the door before you got to feces....
Before I walk us through many of these, however, I would like to reflect with you for a moment on why we have so many words in English that relate to garbage or things discarded. I don't know if anyone really knows, but my thesis is that these words, in their figurative sense, provide convenient fodder for people to use against other people. In other words, we are in general a sniveling, querelous, jealous lot and, rather than practicing Christian virtues of charity or mutual forbearance, we tend to want to vent our deepest, as well as our superficial, negative emotions on people or at others' expense. Some of us can't abide another's arrogance or possessions or good luck or beauty or wealth. Thus, we need ready at hand a whole armory of terms either of abuse or garbage to express the negative emotions we have of people.
Thus, you can look at this and the next essay in two ways: it can provide you either with ammunition as you indulge in your critical ventures or it can provide an occasion for amazement as you seek more deeply to understand the human condition.
Beginning with the "Remains" of the Workshop
Scoria is derived from the Greek word skoria, which means "refuse, dross, scum" and, specifically, "dross of metal slag." When it came into English it had that specific meaning. So, from Holland's 1601 translation of Pliny's Natural History we have "The grossee substance cast up from the pot or vessell & swimming aloft..is named Scoria." It also can refer to volcanic rocks. From Judd's Volcanoes (2nd Ed. 1881): "The loose, rough, angular, cindery-looking fragments [of lava] are termed scoriae. Yet the word can be used figuratively, even though OED references to Emerson's and Bentham's use of it aren't memorable or well-stated. Figuratively, it would mean the "lesser or dirtier remnants" of something. I don't see it often used in popular speech or writing, but I think it has great potential as a synonymn for "dregs." See below.
[I put this section in brackets because the word kerf technically is not the remains of something--but I don't want to lose the word here... I only learned the word kerf when I moved to the Pacific Northwest in 1982. Its original meaning was the act of cutting or carving, but its later (and present-day) use is the result of cutting. It is the "incision, notch, slit" made by cutting, esp. by a saw. I guess, technically, the word kerf doesn't belong in this list: sawdust does. But the kerf as the "cut" or the notched area is still a vivid term.]
Oose is a Scottish term meaning the "fluff from wool, cotton, etc." From Jamieson's dictionary of 1825, "Ooze, ouze, the nap, or caddis, that falls from yarn, cloth, etc." This brings us into the world of lint which originally was a Scottish term either describing flax or the refuse of flax used as a combustible.
Slag was originally a vitreous substance, composed of earthy or refuse matter, separated from metals in the process of smelting and often used in the construction of roads. From 1678: "If the Stuff be hard to flux, they throw in some slag (which is the Recrement of Iron) to give it fusion. But why is this "vitreous" as the OED asserts? If you look at the earliest meanings of vitreous you discover it means either consisting of glass or a sort of amorphous and transparent form of silica obtained by rapid quenching from the molten state. Well, in any case, from 1951 we have this: Slags from smelting operations form a valuable source of roadstone in England and Wales..With one exception the slags are derived from iron smelters or steel works."
Dross is the "scum, recrement or extraneous matter thrown off from metals in the process of melting." it can also mean "dreggy, impure or foreign matter, mixed with any substance and detracting from its purity," such as the dregs or lees of oil, wine, chaff of corn, etc. Thus, though dross may have originally had a significance related to metals, it soon adopted a broader significance. From 1440 we have "drosse of corne," or from 1616, "She shall reserve the drosse of the Grapes shee presseth.." or from the same year, "Take the dross of oyle of Linseed." Words with specific meanings take on broader meanings as time goes on.
Limature are, simply, metal filings. From 1658: "Take three or four poinds of the limature of iron, wash it well..." The word originates from lima, the Latin word for "file." Limation, however, is a term in metallurgy or even surgery which referns to the "filing" or "polishing up" of a task. From 1706: "Limation...In Surgery, the filing of the Bones, or hard Parts of the Body." The word seems not to have expanded its meaning much over time.
The original home of dregs was with liquor. The dregs were "the sediment of liquors; the more solid particles which settle at the bottom of a solution or other liquid; grounds, lees, feculent matters..." Charles Dickens used this in his unfinished work The Mystery of Edwin Drood: "He flings the dregs of his wine at Edwin." But the word could early have a figurative sense, such as in this 1631 quotation: "Much corruption lieth as dreggs at the bottome." Or, from 1876: "The very dregs of the population." It can also simply refer to what is left behind, such as the sequelae of a disease.
I still have a lot to go...
Copyright © 2004-2008 William R. Long