sleaze

Sorry, it's been a while. I was back to teaching, which meant my Sunday blogging time went out the window because when teaching is in session, there is no spare time. I wasn't too sorry to go back to it, though. I was feeling a mighty guilt for being on leave from teaching during the pandemic, and I was teaching two topics close to my heart: English in the United States and Semantics. I came to pandemic teaching in its third university term, which meant that my colleagues had already worked out what works best, and I could follow their lead. While it was hard to get good discussions going in the online setting, student attendance and preparation were fantastic. In all, it was very rewarding.

I'm still in recovery from it, though, so I'm trying to write a short-and-simple blog post. (We've heard that one before...). So I'm going to write about the last thing to come (AmE) over the transom. This tweet:

Kirk McElhearn @mcelhearn · 8h @lynneguist  I’m very surprised by the use of the word “sleaze” lately regarding Tory corruption. I thought it was, perhaps, a BrE usage, because in AmE I would never use it in this case. My partner, who is English, is surprised too. Any though?

The adjective sleazy goes back to the 17th century, when it referred to a property of textiles. The OED defines an early meaning as "Thin or flimsy in texture; having little substance or body." More familiar meanings "Dilapidated, filthy, slatternly, squalid; sordid, depraved, disreputable, worthless" only came into being in the 20th century. The OED's earliest citations for such meanings are from Americans in 1941, but quickly after that are UK examples. Green's Dictionary of Slang has some in the 1930s, also from the US. Usages associated with sex come later than those associated with dirtiness or criminality.

Sleaze as a noun doesn't show up until the late 1960s. The earliest OED citations are British and have to do with sordidness, inferior quality and low moral standards. They have a draft addition of a separate sense of 'political corruption or impropriety'. The first of these is from the Washington Post in 1980. Green's Dictionary of Slang's first is from 1981 in Decatur, Illinois. British usage comes soon after and seems to take charge—so much so that some American commenters on social media (like Kirk above) are saying that this sense of sleaze is unfamiliar to them.

AmE, we've seen before, has a 'corruption' sense for graft that BrE doesn't have. A commenter back at that post mentions sleaze as a possible BrE translation. The "sleaze crisis" in the Guardian headline is about money, lobbying, government contracts and the Conservative party.

These days in AmE, the noun sleaze more usually refers to a person—originally a promiscuous woman, but nowadays I'd mostly read it more like (AmE) sleazebag (also sleazeball among other things), which Green's defines as "a distasteful person, with overtones of dirtiness, criminality and sexual excess". In AmE, you'd probably expect a "sleaze crisis" to involve sex.

Sleaze shows up as a noun much more in BrE than in AmE, including in the news, as shown here for the News on the Web corpus. (With the AmE 'person' meaning, using it in the news might constitute libel.) 

 

For what it's worth, nouns that co-occur (+/- 4 words) most with sleaze in this corpus are:


BrE    

    AmE    
allegations
bags
corruption
bag
watchdog
crime
scandal
enemies
violence
incompetence
government
ball
level
corruption
sex
trump

Interestingly, the sixth most common adjective with sleaze in the American part of the corpus is Tory, indicating how strongly the word is associated with Britain, at least in news contexts. 

 

Wow, a blog post written in 43 minutes. I kept my promise to myself! 

In dark red are additions/edits from the morning after. Thanks to commenter Zhuang Lemon Duck.


14 comments

  1. I think I first became aware of the word "sleaze" in connection with the expenses scandal of some years ago when politicians were accused of having claimed reimbursement for personal, rather than professional expenses.

    (And where has the "Notify me" button gone so I can see what others are saying?

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  2. I had a DVD of the Angus Deayton years of Have I Got News For You and one of the clips was from the 97 election special. I don’t remember exactly what they were talking about but one of the comments was ‘the first Labour sleaze.’

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  3. Links to the reading lists lead to a University of Sussex page that says: 'Log in to Talis Education Limited'.

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    Replies
    1. That's too bad! I've deleted the links and the mention of them.

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  4. Here's my comment-catching comment.

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  5. My copy of the OED gives the first usage of sleaze meaning polical corruption as being American.

    "Draft partial entry December 2002

    ▸ spec. Political corruption or impropriety; corrupt or scandalous behaviour by public officials. Cf. sleaze factor n.

       1980 Washington Post 4 Feb. a6/1 Public perceptions may lump all 535 House and Senate members together in a great ball of sleaze, but in the real world of Capitol Hill it is not that way.    1984 Guardian 8 Oct. 17 (heading) The White House approach of distancing itself from all the sleaze does work.    1994 Richmond (Va.) Times-Dispatch 3 Nov. a23/5 Unfortunately, political campaigns that are long on sleaze and short on substance have become the norm.    2000 Econ. Affairs 20 58/2 So to overcome allegations of sleaze, irrelevance and voter apathy, politicians are co-opting pressure groups to help make policy."

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    1. Thanks—I had missed that the draft addition. I will point that out in the post.

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  6. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  7. "AmE, we've seen before, has a 'corruption' sense for graft that BrE doesn't have."

    I'm a Brit and wasn't aware of that AmE sense of 'graft'. It strikes me as being semantically very close to AmE 'grift', no?

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    1. Click on the link to 'graft' and you can join the conversation about it there!

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    2. Nine years on, I don't think there's anything useful I can add to the conversation. Interesting post and discussion, though — thanks!

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  8. US citizen here: I first heard it used in the sense of sleazeball, probably when I was about ten.

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  9. The Washington Post example in the draft addition does not seem, to me (US), to be the same as the BrE sense. Saying the entire Congress is "a great ball of sleaze" is really just the same as "a great number of sleazeballs", and it absolutely still has "overtones of dirtiness, criminality and sexual excess" - it doesn't read like a noun the way BrE uses it but rather a form of "sleaziness" (still having sexual connotations) truncated by the "sleazeball" association. I still definitely get the

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Abbr.

AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)