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Insulting Words

Rosie Right

Style's Back Page, "Mencken's Revenge" mentions the word booboisie as an example of the terms Mencken used to describe the Southern people he so much scorned. This is an interesting example of how words can take on a life of their own and morph with usage. In a footnote in Mencken's "The American Language" he tells us:

"... I have never devised anything properly describable as slang, save maybe booboisie. This was a deliberate invention. One evening in February 1922, Ernest Boyd and I were the guests of Harry C. Black at his home in Baltimore. We fell to talking of the paucity of words to describe the victims of the Depression then current, and decided to remedy it. So we put together a list of about fifty terms and on Feb. 15 I published it in the Baltimore Evening Sun . It included boobariat, booberati, boobarian, boobomaniac, boobuli and booboisie. Only booboisie, which happened to be one of my contributions, caught on ..."

Somehow, the word changed from meaning a victim of the Depression to being an insult which is described thus in The New Oxford Dictionary of English ( 1998): "stupid as a class. — origin 1920s from boob, humorous formation on the pattern of bourgeoisie."

Perhaps Mencken did not want to own up to his invention of the term as an insult ( an unlikely scenario), or he thought the victims of the Depression were stupid. At any rate, booboisie has now taken its place in many dictionaries.

During this tiresome political primary season, we heard John McCain apply the term sleazy to some of George Bush's supporters. Where did this word sleazy (which sounds creepy) come from? The Word Detective, which is to be found on the Web, tells us that sleazy "is quite possibly (but not certainly) related to the region of Silesia"(now part of Poland).

It seems that in the 17th century there was a fabric manufactured in Silesia that was known as "sleazy cloth. "At some time around 1670 sleazy began to be a word for cheap or flimsy. The Detective says " there is no solid linguistic proof" that the meaning "cheap or shoddy" came from Silesian cloth but the probability exists ..." by about 1941 [it] had acquired its modern meaning of "squalid, worthless or sordid."

Whatever the origin, Rosie feels sure that Mr. McCain, while he was not calling Mr. Bush's friends cloth merchants, did not mean to pay the Texans a compliment.

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