Thursday, 18 February 2010

Etymology of a political insult

American and British slang sometimes diverges. What may on one side of the Atlantic be considered the mildest of terms, or even completely inoffensive, turns out to be rather stronger on the other. Randy, in the US, is a perfectly normal man's (or woman's) name. Wanker, as Joss Whedon was well aware, is a bleepable obscenity on British TV but usually escapes notice in America. "Scum" is a counter-example. In Britain, scum is what develops around an inadequately cleaned bath. In the USA it also means semen.

The term "scum-sucking", recently popularised by Labour minister David Wright, properly refers to an act of oral sex - just as "scumbag" actually means "condom". It appears, though, to be a fairly mild expletive. In Mean Girls, one of the characters - queen bee cheerleader Regina George - is referred to as "a scum-sucking road-whore", a formulation that ought to make the meaning crystal clear. The phrase was also employed in Curb Your Enthusiasm, in a scene featuring a sufferer from Tourette's. "Scum-sucking motherf_cking whore!" exclaims Larry David. Again, the meaning is fairly obvious.

Wright is not the first to employ the phrase "scum-sucking pigs". It crops up in a number of movies (including The Three Amigos). Cassell's Dictionary of Slang dates "scumbag", in its original sense, to the 1920s, but other semen-related uses of "scum" to the Sixties, which seems a little strange. There are several other derivations mentioned, all derogatory references to human beings, including "scumhead", "scumball" and (best of all) "scumbucket".

Wright's attempt to deny authorship of the "scum-sucking" part of his "you can put lipstick on a scum-sucking pig" Tweet lacks much credibility. It does, however, imply he knows - or at least suspects - what the phrase signifies. I've not seen this etymological information recorded in any of the discussion that the phrase has generated over the past few days, however. Why so coy?