Some months back, I read the following in an Op-Ed on John McCain by David Brooks in the New York Times
. . . which got me to wondering about the origin of the word SLEAZE. The answer I found was simple, since all sources said that it derived from the word SLEAZY. The only problem was that most (but not all) listed the origin of ‘sleazy’ as ‘uncertain’ or ‘obscure.’ And there was the sticky problem of whether the 20th-century meanings of ‘sleazy’ are a natural progression from the older 17th-century meanings or if they arose independently, and as Random House suggested “perhaps represent a distinct word.”<2008 “He [[John McCain]] led a crusade against Jack Abramoff and the sleaze-meisters in his own party and exposed corrupt Pentagon contracts.”—New York Times, 25 September>:
From what I could gather (see below), a good part of the earlier history of sleazy is well-known. But how it went from its most common early literal and figurative meanings of ‘flimsy and unsubstantial cloth’ to its modern meanings of ‘sordid, squalid, filthy, disreputable, etc.’ is not known or if, in fact, the original word is at all connected to the modern ones. It is not hard to imagine going from flimsy and unsubstantial, to poor quality, to shabby, to dilapidated, to sordid. But imaging and proving are not the same and it seems that there is no proof of a direct connection.
RANDOM HOUSE WEBSTER’S UNABRIDGED DICTIONARY
SLEAZE noun Slang:
1) A contemptible or vulgar person.
2) A shabby or slovenly person.
3) A sleazy quality, character, or atmosphere; shoddiness; vulgarity.
4) A sleazy behavior, content, appearance, or the like.
[[5) specifically Political corruption or impropriety; corrupt or scandalous behavior by public officials. sleaze factor]]
[1950–55; back formation from SLEAZY]
1) Contemptibly low, mean, or disreputable: sleazy politics.
2) Squalid; sordid; filthy; dilapidated: a sleazy hotel.
3) Thin or poor in texture, as a fabric; cheap; flimsy: a sleazy dress; a sleazy excuse.
[1635–45; (definition 3) of obscure origin (probably unrelated to Silesia [[see below]] other than by folk etymology.); sense of definitions 1–2 (first attested 1941) perhaps represent a distinct word]
[[Note: ‘Folk etymology’ has the following two different meanings and it is not entirely clear which one Random House is referring to above: 1) A popular but bogus made-up-after-the-fact, reasonable-sounding explanation. 2) a modification of a linguistic form according either to a falsely assumed etymology, as Welsh rarebit from Welsh rabbit, or to a historically irrelevant analogy, as bridegroom from bridegome.]]
Here’s what Hugh Rawson had to say in his WICKED WORDS, which is at odds with Random Houses’s above “probably unrelated to Silesia”:
SLEAZE noun []: Sordidness, squalor, (someone or something) that is disreputable, dirty, run-down, dilapidated, cheap, inferior, or immoral. . . . comes from sleazy, whose origin is obscure but which classes as a geographical derogation in view of its long association with the region of Silesia in Eastern Europe (once mainly in Germany but since the Potsdam Pact of 1945 mainly in Poland). The geographical connection dates to the 17th century when sleasie, sleasy, and sleazy, all recognized corruptions of Silesia, also were used to describe a kind of linen or cotton cloth that was flimsy, ill-made, and quick to wear out. The progression in textile nomenclature was from Holland cloth, a fine cloth first made, as the name implies in The Netherlands (from the 15th century), to imitation Sleasie Holland, originally made in Germany, to the simple sleazy (See also chintzy).
In addition to the political sleaze factor (from 1984), other sleazy constructions include sleazebag (basically the same as a scumbag or scuzzbag), sleazeball, sleaze merchant, sleazo and sleazoid.
I guess I don’t quite understand the reluctance of many sources such as Random House to accept the above connection between the region Silesia and the word sleazy, but perhaps my standards are too low. However, there is no argument that an early meaning (mid-17th century) of the word was the flimsy, unsubstantial, poorly-made cloth that the region produced (Random House definition #3); nor that in the 17th century the word was also being used figuratively (see quotes below) to mean flimsy and unsubstantial.
Here’s what CASSELL’S DICTIONARY OF SLANG had to say:
SLEAZY adjective (also) SLEAZO, SLEAZOID, SLEEZY: 1) [1930s and still in use]: Of a person, unpleasant, possibly criminal, generally distasteful, often with sexual overtones. 2) [1930s and still in use]: Of a thing, dirty, run down, decayed. [from Standard English sleazy, of textile fabrics or materials, thin or flimsy; ultimately sleazy, of ropes or yarn, rough from projecting fibers]. [[more on ‘ultimately of ropes or yarn . . . ’ after the OED definitions below]]
Notice that Cassell’s states that their two modern definitions (Random House definitions #1 & #2) which date only from the 1930s (Random House and the OED from 1941), derive from the flimsy material, whereas Random House thinks the modern words may be ‘distinct’ with no connection to the older word at all.
Eric Partridge offered the following derivation for the 20th-century meaning, which is in line with Random House’s suggestion, but which seems to have a cheering section of one – himself – in his DICTIONARY OF SLANG AND UNCONVENTIONAL ENGLISH:
SLEAZY noun: 1) Grimy or dilapidated—or both; (cheap and) inferior: adopted in the late 1950s, from US. A blend of slimy and greasy. 2) Hence, in Britain, garish and disreputable since 1959.
And where did Cassell’s get the above-mentioned idea that SLEAZY was ultimately of “ropes or yarn, rough from projecting fibers” and is that correct? I’d say they got the germ of the idea from the OED and that the evidence they provide does not justify that conclusion. The fuzzy-fiber-on-rope/yarn thought did not appear in print until the latter part of the 19th century according to the OED (see 1875 quote below), and the sole quote referring to ‘hairy’ (see 1644 quote below), which I suppose they are connecting to fuzzy fibers, provided no connection to cloth. Also, ‘flimsy cloth’ (literal and figurative) and the ‘hairy’ quote both appeared in print within a year of each other (see below), so I see no basis for saying that the ‘hairy’ idea came first and was the ultimate source. In fact, I would guess the opposite since for a word to go from literal to figurative would probably take some time. Of course, we shouldn't get too excited over these first in print dates since the earliest transferred/figurative meaning of flimsy cloth appeared in 1645 whereas the earliest literal example was from 1670 (and that there ain't how it works in real life)!
THE OXFORD ENGLISH DICTIONARY
1) SLEAZY / SLEEZY: see following 2 quotes
2) SLEAZY / SLEEZY adjective: Of textile fabrics or materials: Thin or flimsy in texture; having little substance or body.<1644 “Some dry parts of such liquors, are of themselves as it were hairy or sleasy, that is, have little downy parts, such as you see upon the legs of flies.”—The Nature of Bodies by K. Digby, xxxiv. §1. page 288>
<1875 “It smooths down the sleezy and fuzzy fibers of the twisted rope. Ibid. Sleezy, . . . rough from projecting fibers, as yarn or twine made of inferior material.”—The Mechanician and Constructor for Engineers by Knight, pages 2192/1 and 22071>
3) SLEAZY / SLEEZY Transferred and figurative sense: Slight, flimsy, unsubstantial. From “of textile fabrics or materials: Thin or flimsy in texture; having little substance or body.”<1670 “s.v., Sleasie Holland[/i][/b], common people take to be all Holland, which is slight or ill-wrought.”— Glossographia (edition 3) by T. Blount
<1757 “They were presented each with a suit made of thin, sleazy cloth without lining.”—Letters (1889) of George Washington, I. page 424>
<1876 “Their one sleazy skirt giving little protection against the keen air.”— My winter on the Nile by C. D. Warner, i. page 20>
4) SLEAZY / SLEEZY: Dilapidated, filthy, slatternly, squalid; sordid, depraved, disreputable [[including the political sense]], worthless. (The OED quotes for this one are included below with the earliest being from 1941)<circa 1645 “I cannot well away with such sleazie stuff, with such cobweb compositions.”—Familiar Letters (1650) by J. Howell, II. page 2>
<1648 “Their vain, and sleasy opinions about Religion.”— Petit. Eastern Ass., page 26>
<1860 “You shall not conceal the sleezy, fraudulent, rotten hours you have slipped into the piece.”—The Conduct of Life (1861) by Ralph Waldo Emerson, ii. page 51>
<1880 “I have only to deal with very little things, sometimes too slim to handle well, and too sleezy to be woven.”—Erema by R. D. Blackmore, xvi. page 96>
SLEAZE FACTOR : The sleazy or sordid aspect of a situation, especially as applied to political scandals and corruption involving government officials. The term was applied initially, in U.S. politics, to members of the Reagan administration and later to political scandals in Britain.]] (Oxford English Dictionary and Brewer’s Modern Dictionary of Phrase & Fable)
SLEAZEMEISTER noun: An acknowledged expert on, or practitioner of, sordidness, sleaziness, immorality or political corruption. U.S. by a combination of sleaze and German meister (master). (New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English)
The following quotes are from the Oxford English Dictionary and other print as well as archived sources:
(also see 20th Century Words by John Ayto, Oxford Dictionary of Slang, Oxford Dictionary of Phrase & Fable, American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, Barnhart Concise Dictionary of Etymology)<1941 “I was always happening on a Hermaphrodite, in some discreet alcove, and I would examine the sleazy mock~modest little monster.”—Lanterns on the Levee by W. A. Percy, x. page 111>
<1946 “Her glamour dissolved . . . Suddenly Selena seemed sleazy.”—Puzzle for Fiends by P. Quentin, page 248>
<1956 “Beyond it was the cemetery and some sleazy suburb whose name Adrian did not know.”—Oxford Folly by L. McIntosh, viii. page 128>
<1966 “He scratches a middle-aged living in Paris as a gigolo in a sleazy night club.”—The Listener, 30 June, page 947/2>
<1967 “For all its brazen sleaze, Soho is a pretty fair working model of what a city neighbourhood should be.”—The Listener, 14 September, page 326/2>
<1975 “Obviously written to cash in on ‘Mandingo’, this isn't even readable sleaze: the plot's sloppy, Gilchrist hasn't the knack for writing commercial sex, and the hero is too despicable to be seductive.”—Publisher’s Weekly, 29 December, page 68/2>
<1981 “These stores are vast, computerized sleaze centers, where you can buy almost anything—pills, toys, candy, liquor, stockings, pillows, and gadgetry.”—New Yorker, 9 March, page 104/1>
<1983 “‘What kind of a sleazeball are we dealing with here?’ Tsongas put that question in a form that made the TV news.”—Atlantic Monthly, July, page 44/2>
<1984 “Lurking round the campaign trail now will always be the shadow of her husband and his own sleaze factor.”—Sunday Times (London), 26 August, page 17/8>
<1986 “‘This was no sleazebag lawyer.’ In more stately language, the committee says the same thing.”—Legal Times, 16 June, page 8/1>
<1988 “Mr Meese . . . had become the outstanding symbol of the so-called ‘sleaze factor’ which has bedevilled the Reagan administration.”—Courier-Mail (Brisbane), 7 July, page 6/5>
<1993 “I take it Abernathy tried some cheap sleazemeister tricks at the depostition?”—Deadly Justice by W. Bernhardt, page 137>
<1994 “Unfortunately, political campaigns that are long on sleaze and short on substance have become the norm.”—Richmond Times-Dispatch (Virginia), 3 November, page A23/5>
<1995 “Although Tory disunity and uncertainty about Britain’s economic prospects are undoubtedly the main reasons underlying voter discontent with the Government, the ‘sleaze factor’ is almost certainly making an independent contribution.”—Daily Telegraph (London)[/i]>
<2000 “So to overcome allegations of sleaze, irrelevance and voter apathy, politicians are co-opting pressure groups to help make policy.”—Economic Affairs, Vol. 20, page 58/2>
<2003 Iain Duncan Smith will today ask Parliament's sleaze watchdog to clear his name over allegations that he broke Commons rules when he paid his wife Betsy as his diary secretary.”—The Daily Mail (London)[/i], 13 October>
<2005 “Stateside Bush haters have never extended their dislike to Blair because he reminds them of what they liked about Clinton, minus the sleaze factor.”—Washington Post, 5 May>
<2008 “Do Tories get involved in sleaze? Does the Pope have a balcony? Derek Conway's payments to his two sons totalling 80,000 were just another parliamentary scandal until the press got a load of number-one son, Henry. Who cared how little he'd been doing for his money, Henry was, so he said, ‘blond, bouncy and one for the boys.’”—The Independent on Sunday (London), 28 December>
Well, this was messy and I can see why I might have dropped it back in September. But it is interesting (at least to me – am I the only one?) (>;) Anyway, if I was a gambling man, I suppose I’d bet on sleazy being a corruption of the Silesia region where the flimsy cloth was first made, and that all the various definitions from ‘flimsy’ and low quality cloth all the way to ‘sordid’ and ‘politically corrupt’ were formed by a not improbable progression of shifts (never mind that nasty hiatus till 1941). And then, of course, my sentimental favorite explanation would have to be the one by Hugh Rawson in Wicked Words, even though it may be wrong.
But looking back at what I wrote, my considered advice would be that no one bet any money on anything.
Ken G – January 1, 2009