"Dirty" Words II
Bill Long 2/21/08
Some Broader Usages
I love the word recrement, defined as "the superfluous or useless portion of any substance; refuse, dross, scum, off-scouring." Its adjectival form, recrementitious (drossy, superflous, inessential) has appeared in some of the recent kids' spelling bees. Bishop Hall could speak of the "foulnesse of the most earthly recrements" in 1640, while in 1774 another author could speak of the "recrement" of a "Vulcano."
Scum originally referred to "foam; froth; pl. bubbles," and the figurative sense of this is preserved in 1637: "The scum & froth of my letters I father upon my own unbeleeving heart." It also referred to a film or layer of floating matter found upon the surface of a liquid in a state of fermentation or bubbling. But we are most familiar now with the way it is applied to persons--the "offscouring" of humanity or the lowest class of the population.
Speaking of offscouring, its first use was in Tyndale's 1526 translation of the Bible. He rendered I Cor. 4:13, the "of scowrynge of all things." Most modern translations of that rare Greek word paripsema render it "offscouring." Once the Bible has used a word in translation, it gets picked up in later homiletic or apologetic works. So, in 1564 we have: "They did count them [sc. Christians] no better than the vilest filth, the offscourings and laughing games of the whole world." The Greek word is derived from a verb meaning "to wipe all around," and thus the things that are "wiped off" are the "offscourings."
The word refuse probably comes from something that is "refused" or "rejected." It could be used both as an adjective and noun, but in the latter case, it was associated with that which was cast aside as worthless.
The words that fit under this category are ordure, dung, feces, offal and frass. Frass is the "excrement of larvae; also, the refuse left behind by boring insects." The German word fressen, meaning "to devour," may lie behind it. The connection between devouring and leaving something behind came from its original use by HT Stainton in 1854:
"The half-eaten leaves attest but too surely that some devourer is near. These indications of the presence of a larva are expressed in the German language by the single word 'frass,' and we may, without impropriety, use the same word for the purpose of expressing the immediate effect of the larva's jaws, and the more indirect effect of the excrementitious matter ejected by the larva."
There you have it. Oh, the use of excrementitious in the last line brought to mind a few other words describing what is left behind--the excrement or rejectamenta. Excrement meant, at first, "that which remains after a process of sifting or refining; the dregs, lees, refuse." But, around the same time, another definition began to emerge: "that which is cast out of the animal body by any of the natural emunctories." Oh-oh, can't you just see us getting into this deeper and deeper? Well, let's get out of this word by quoting Cooper's 1565 list of some excrementa from the body. "Excrementum, the dregges or excrementes of digestion made in the bodie; as fleume (i.e., phlegm), choler, melancholie, urine, sweate, snivell (i.e., snot), spittel, milke, ordure..." Great list.
Ordure, derived in a roundabout way from the Italian ordura and orrido, from which we get "horrid," means "dung, excrement, feces." Shakespeare used the term in Henry V:
"As gardeners do with ordure hide those roots
That shall first spring and be most delicate."
Something ordurous is not necessarily arduous; ordurous means "pertaining to or consisting of ordure or dung." Though the word feces, derived fromt he Latin word for "dung," originally simply meant the sediment or dregs of something, by the 17th century it became identified with "waste matter that is discharged from the bowels." Well, I could go on to say a few things about dung but I am tired of this shi....
Conclusion--Two "Offal" Essays
I will close with a brief treatment of offal because it is one of the words for discarded thigns that has the richest history. Its origin is in Dutch or, what is more familiar to me, the German word Abfall, the things that "fall off." So, the first meaning, going back to the end of the fourteenth century, was "that which is thrown off from some process, as husks from milling grain, chips from dressing wood, etc.." One could "distil rum from the offal of sugar" or speak about "the offals of the barn and stables" that will maintain a certain number of poultry. A parallel meaning developed however: "The edible parts collectively which are cut off in preparing the carcass of an animal for food." This might include the head, tail, entrails. From 1595: "The Butchers offal were thy sweetest ware." But, by the 19th century this more positive notion of "offal" could be read negatively. From 1883: "He has been reduced to the dregs of life; had lived in a cellar on offals." Yet, the positive meaning could persist. From 1965: "'Edible Offals' consist of the rumen and reticulum and, sometimes, the abomasum, all of which have thick walls of nutritious white muscle..."
Yet, this latter definition exists in tandem with "offal as rejected things." From 1838: "Supporting life by feeding on the most loathsome offal, on cats, dogs, etc..." In my experience the word is used mostly figuratively (and negatively) today, to describe the (human) trash, waste and rubbish in life. "Wretches..whom every body now believes to have been..the offal of gaols and brothels."
Thus, you have it--my museum tour of some of the "dirtiest" words in the English language. Maybe I should turn some day to the noblest and most glorious words, words that emphasize the greatness of human achievement. That, indeed, would be a harder essay.
Copyright © 2004-2008 William R. Long