Wednesday, March 2, 2011


I'm watching The Last Word with Lawrence O'Donnell,  where for the second night in a row, Wisconsin Senator  Glenn Grothman is calling the Wisconsin protesters 'slobs'. Whatever the merits of his political positions, calling the constituents of the state a pejorative isn't exactly covering him with glory.

The more the word is bandied around, though, the more I found myself wondering about it. What does it really mean? Of course it means slovenly, sloppy and schlumpish. It's the opposite of clean and tidy. Whether it also means what you are at 7 AM after sleeping on the cold hard floor of the Wisconsin State Capitol as Senator Grothman has just stated is a question I will leave to others to decide. But where did the word come from?


My guess would have been that 'slob' was in some way a transmutation of 'Slav', which was pejorative enough, once upon a time, according to Rebecca West in the opening of her brilliant book about traveling in Yugoslavia, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. In fact, it has nothing to do with that part of the world. It comes from the Irish slab, or 'mud'. Yep, still denigrating, but of an entirely different group of people. Slab shows up in Irish text in about 1780 and the theory is that it came first from England, which used the term for 'a muddy place' at around 1600. And i's roots may go back to  some Scandinavian beginning, as Iceland has the word slabb, for sludge.

It didn't get applied to people, though, until the mid 1800s. We can assume, I think, that the circumstances were somewhat Grothmanesque.  


  1. Facsinating. Such a simple word, yet as always, more to it than meets the eye.

  2. Kathleen, actually, I'm a bit of a slob. Especially right now, after pulling my house apart for a couple of good reasons, and, uh, not having bothered to put it together again, for a couple of bad ones.


    Yes, and it's very interesting and humbling to discover how many of my assumptions about words are just plain wrong.

  3. I love the things you think to inform us of. Very interesting.

  4. Thanks, Glenna. Although it's more like I suddenly realize that I am uncertain or completely baffled about something myself and seek to inform myself as much or more than anything else.

    A Lifetime of Laziness, Corrected, would be another name for this blog.

  5. Hmmm, interesting.

    In Belfast "Don't slabber!" means dont trash talk or dont talk back.

  6. Or "Don't talk mud." Thanks. That's an interesting confirmation of the general idea.

  7. I think slab in Irish or rolling off an Irish tongue would sound more like slob than it would like the English word slab. This would lend credibility to the word origin given here.

  8. Yes, I thought of that possibility. I'm not as sure how it sounds in an Irish accent as it does in British English, but this makes me remember how amused my was at hearing the name of arch-villain Grant Mitchell from Eastenders pronounced, "Gront." Sounded pretty grand for an Eastend felon.