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.