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Precocious and Profane

Ammon Shea recently spent a year of his life reading the OED from start to finish. Over the next few months he will be posting weekly blogs about the insights, gems, and thoughts on language that came from this experience. His book, Reading the OED, has been published by Perigee, so go check it out in your local bookstore. In the post below Ammon reflects on his precocious childhood.

I’ve always known that I was a precocious child, and not in a good sense. One thing that I picked up at a remarkably early age was a firm grasp of vulgarity. Unlike many children, I did not simply parrot the taboo words I heard, but instead used them with intent and in context. At least, this is what I’ve been told – I was too young to remember.

I’ve heard my father many times describe the first time he heard me curse. I’d asked him for a hot dog, or some similar food in the supermarket, and he had said that we were going home to eat dinner, and so refused to get it. According to him, I then clenched my fists, stuck out my lower jaw, and bellowed “scumbag!” at the top of my lungs. I was not quite two years old.

I knew, and used, many other forms of foul language at an unusually young age, but it always seemed to me that my use of scumbag was the most unusual of them. This was not simply because I was saying it before I was two, but also because I was saying it in 1972, and the dictionaries I checked all date the use of this word in a pejorative sense from 1971. I was, I thought, truly on the cutting edge of offensive vocabulary, and I’ve always taken a perverse sort of pride in this.

I understand that words, especially slang and colloquialisms, are frequently in use verbally before they are found in writing, but even so I was always somewhat alarmed at how quickly I had adopted into my own vocabulary this prophylactic synonym after its entry into out language. Recently, however, I have discovered that it is somewhat older than I had always thought.

The OED lists scumbag (as a condom) from 1967, and as a term of opprobrium from 1971. But in an article in Slate magazine from 2006, Jesse Sheidlower notes that the dates for each of the two uses of the word have been pushed back to 1935 and 1950, respectively.

The business of antedating a word is a tricky one, and it seems that one can almost always find an earlier example of a word than was initially thought, as has been demonstrated by Jürgen Schäfer and many others. But the case of scumbag strikes me as odd. After all, its first appearance in the OED was in the supplement O – Scz, published in 1982. Was there really no one who worked on defining this word at the time who remembered it from their own childhood, or at least from a time prior to 1971? I suppose it is possible that they simply could not find any written citations prior to then, or that the word was not enough it common usage to have been part of the written record. But it also seems possible to me that the lexicographers, no matter how unflinchingly they dealt with this and all aspects of our language, did not come from an environment in which scumbag was bandied about as an acceptable colloquialism.

In any event, I’m very much looking forward to the new entry for this word when it appears in the current revision of the OED, even as it will conclusively dismantle one of my cherished childhood memories: I was not a linguistic wunderkind – I was merely a foul-mouthed and ill-mannered child.

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