Jonathon Green – visit his website here – is the English language’s leading lexicographer of slang. His Green’s Dictionary of Slang is quite simply the most comprehensive and authorative work on slang ever published. Today Jonathon continues his epic survey of the Seven Deadly Sins of Slang by looking at Sloth…
As lenten comes from lengthen so does sloth come from slow. It means slowness and was used as such from the 12th century. It was a synonym for the earlier unlust : a disinclination to be active or bestir oneself and thus idleness. Sex does not seem to have entered the equation, and anyway lust itself will be our seventh sin. As regards the animal kingdom it was first applied not to the megatherium, which is what the first sloths were named, but used as a collective for a group of bears or on mistaken occasion boars. The modern sloth arrives in the early 17th century with Europe’s invasion of South America. And what the playwright and cant-gatherer Thomas Dekker, in his Seven Sinnes of London, termed ‘this nastie, and loathsome sin of Sloth’ appeared in 1606.
The human sloth is its animal cousin writ bipedal; taking as a role-model the laid-back leaf-muncher which moves at a mere two metres a minute, and is never so happy as when hanging from its branch, coming down just once a week for the most literal call of nature. In the rainy season they don’t even bother with this, preferring the safety of their tree, in which they eat, sleep, even give birth and to which they can be found still clinging after death.
Like the sloth the slothful human is going nowhere and certainly not fast. The anchored buttocks seem to play a major role. Synonyms include the 17th century shite-rags, defined by the lexicographer B.E. as ‘an idle lazie fellow’. More recently we find the assbulb, the dead-ass (with its synonyms the deadbeat and the deadhead, which latter once meant someone who gained free entry to a theatre with no need of extracting their wallet), the lard-arse, the slack-arse, the lazybum and lazyboots and the lolpoop, which blends standard English loll, to lean, with slang’s poop, the posterior. And there is the bum, although this is perhaps a false friend since it seems more likely to be linked to the perceived idleness of the tramping bum, whose origins lie not the in rear end but in the bummer, itself descended, according to Schele De Vere’s Americanisms (1872) ‘from the German Bummler, a man who goes about without aim and purpose, and lives on the fruits of other people’s labor.’ (And hence Jerome K. Jerome’s less known chronicle of cycling through the Black Forest in 1900: Three Men on the Bummel)
South Africa adds the holhanger, literally ‘arse loiterer’ and the slapgat, the ‘sleep-arse’. And then there’s this, from the Australian bush c. 1900 and thanks to the Sydney Bulletin: ‘”Yes, ole Brown was a reg’lar ole coot, a right down pukacker. Yer could ring a tatt into him anytime. He rolled ’is marble in last year – too much nose-paint, yer know.” Which all meant merely that Brown was shiftless and credulous and had died through excessive drinking.’ It is hard, but perhaps ultimately necessary to divorce one’s thoughts from two excremental terms: poo, and kack.
There is an abundance of the slothful. The dress-and-breath was a lazy woman, unable to make any effort beyond dressing up and drawing breath; the sooner, would ‘sooner do one thing as another’, in this case the primary choice being nothing at all (the term also means a child born less than nine months after the wedding, and any dog that, lazily ‘would rather feed than fight’). Australia, whence this comes, also offers the neversweat (who doubtless is performing the government stroke, the deliberately minimal rate of work put out by convict labourers), the crow-eater, which smears the early settlers of Crowland (i.e South Australia) who would rather eat a crow than actually make an effort to hunt something more appetising, and the bludger. This last comes from bludgeoner and originally referred to a pimp, probably of the sort that plays ‘the Murphy game’, menacing and robbing his girl’s client. From there it turned into a general term of abuse, usually implying that the person in question lives off the efforts and money of others and more recently has meant any white-collar worker (at least from the point of view of a manual labourer, who sees such work as idling). Paradoxically Australia has also used blueshirt, which once meant a boss (and thus assumed to be a doodler). The goldbrick is another idler, and comes from the trick of selling a supposed ‘gold’ (in fact, painted lead or brass) brick to the gullible. (The scheme was originated by one Reed Waddell who, in 1880, sold his first brick for $4000 and took $250,000 in five years). The skiver comes either from the dialect skive, to move quickly (i.e. away from work) or the French esquiver, to dodge or to slink away.
For those who were born a bit tired, there are a variety of verbs. One can mooch, lizard (like the reptile basking in the sun), one can suffer from Lombard fever or Mediterranean back. The first comes from lomber, to idle, and may be the source of the non-specific illness, the lurgy; the second is Australian racism, suggesting that Italians, Greeks, Yugoslavs and others seen as lazier than ‘white’ Australians suffer from this concocted illness in order to justify malingering. It can also attack in the form of the MGA or Mediterranean gut-ache. More poetic, and presumably of a woman, is to put on the fair Persian, wherein the image is of the languorous odalisque on her harem-bound divan.
To come the old soldier is literally to play the tricks of a veteran, skilled into escaping fatigues; the soldier can also be tin and one can come the old man, but either way the subject is shirking. To give laugh for peas-soup is West Indian. The original meaning is of a visitor who acts in a sufficiently entertaining manner to win an invitation to a meal. Thus it extends to anyone who uses wit and charm to hide their actual disinclination to work.
Finally a small select of animals. The hyena, stereotyping the animal as waiting for others to do its killing first; Paddy Ward’s pig, which must have come from a lost anecdote, and the skate, which began life as an inferior horse, i.e. one that couldn’t compete. Last of all there is he who couldn’t pull a greased stick out of a dead dog’s arse. The national origin of this coarse yet strangely apposite synonym for a lazybones, surely needs no introduction.
Do you have a question for Mr Slang? Email it to firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll send it on to Jonathon.