Several years ago, I devoted a series of posts to the origin of English kl-words: cloud, cloth, clover; perhaps there were more (June 29, 2016, July 13, 2016, and August 10, 2016). Cleave, clay, and many other such words contain the idea of clinging to some substance or clutter. It is hard to miss the sound symbolism that unites them. Some other technically unrelated words also form groups. For example, fly, flow, flatter, flutter, and flicker suggest unsteady movement, even though each of those verbs has its own history.
A special case is the sl-group. In looking through the list slight, slim, sleazy, sliver, slick, slip, etc., one cannot avoid the impression that in some way they too belong together. Surprisingly, when we open a dictionary, we discover that the origin of most of them is unknown. They behave like a rootless but powerful gang. As in dealing with kl– and fl-words, we wonder: Are they related, or do they, by beginning with sl-, influence one another and our understanding of them?
At least two sl-words—sleeveless (in the puzzling phrase sleeveless errand) and slang—have been discussed in this blog (September 28, 2016 and April 26, 2017). A few more deserve our attention. One of them is slender. It appeared in texts in the fifteenth century. As if to mock us, a French word and a Dutch one that look like the sources of the English adjective either never existed or were too obscure to be borrowed by English speakers. Yet English sl-words do often go back to Dutch, so that, in principle, there may be no mystery, and Walter W. Skeat disagreed with the OED and traced slender to Middle Dutch via French.
The Century Dictionary followed Skeat and cited Modern German schlendern and schlenzen, both of which mean “to loiter.” Low German (Low in this term means “northern”) had the verb slendern “to glide,” that is, “to slide” (!), but we need an adjective, and it is precisely the early Flemish adjective slinder whose status raises great doubts. Yet, if we follow Skeat, it migrated to French, where it had a most shadowy existence but managed to gain popularity in English. Understandably, etymologists look for other possibilities. The great Danish linguist Otto Jespersen (1860-1943) suggested that slender is a blend of slim and tender. Several good scholars supported this derivation.
Authoritative dictionaries shy away from such conclusions. They want verifiable hypotheses. Also, they have a reputation to live up to. Both occasional users and some professional students of language history tend to take the conclusions in such sources as the OED, Webster, The Random House Dictionary, and one or two others as definitive. They may not realize that even the greatest dictionaries are written by insecure, fallible human beings, that every new edition revises the verdicts of the previous one, and that the compilers of such works prefer to be safe, not sorry. “Origin unknown” is certainly safe, even if uninspiring. The existence of a blend can be demonstrated only if the process of blending occurs in full view. For instance, blog is indeed web + log, smog is smoke + fog, webinar is web + seminar, and so forth. But how can we “prove” that slender is slim + tender? We cannot. Our guess has merit, but that is as far as it goes.
My interest in sl– words is old. For years, I have been trying to discover the origin of the noun slum. In addition to the sense we all know, slum has been recorded as meaning “room” and “gammon, blarney, gipsy jargon.” No pre-1819 attestation has so far turned up. The word is said to be “of cant origin,” which means that it arose somewhere in the depths of low street slang, where it could have existed for any length of time. The Century Dictionary also cited slum(s), a term from metallurgy, “light gravel, etc., passing off through the waste flume at every upward motion,” the same as slime “ore reduced to a very fine powder and held in suspension in water, so as to form thin water-mud,” mostly used in the plural. It probably follows that the word originally meant “trash, waste, litter,” whether in reference to language, habitat, light gravel, or whatever.
Its neighbors are slim and slime. Some such words are said to have a respectable pedigree. However, slim was recorded only in the middle of the seventeenth century. It meant “slanting”; surprisingly, its German cognate schlimm developed the sense “bad.” Likewise, Engl. sleazy “fuzzy, flimsy” yielded “corrupt, immoral,” while the old sense is forgotten. Apparently, once a word gets into the orbit of sl-, its meaning tends to deteriorate. I suspect that even Engl. slanting, another word of questionable antecedents, developed from “not straight; not right,” but later, contrary to the usual trend, attained a measure of respectability. Slime is old, and so is German Schlamm “mud.” For slime a Latin cognate seems to have been found; Schlamm is of unknown origin. An uneasy feeling remains that all those sl-words belong together and have always denoted things bad, unsteady, sordid, or muddy.
Even the verb slam appeared in English only in the eighteenth century and is presumably of Scandinavian origin. Indeed, many sl-words came to English not only from Dutch but also from the northern quarters; however, English very rarely borrowed common Scandinavian words so late. Perhaps slam referred to an offensive bang? Can it be native? For the moment, I’ll leave slam “prison” out of the picture. Slam, a card term, is earlier, and its possible original meaning “trick, hoodwink” belongs with “bad” and “oblique.”
The mainstay of all Indo-European languages is ablaut, that is, a vowel alternation, as in ride–rode–ridden, fly-flew-flown, give–gave, speak–spoke, and the like. Ablaut, when it was a living process, followed rigid rules. Today we neither remember the intricacies of the ancient processes nor care about them. Yet Modern English and its Germanic siblings reproduced the old game, but play it according to new rules, because they allow vowels to alternate freely and capriciously. Given the aura surrounding the sl-m group, nothing is easier than to form words like slim-slam-slum. I would risk suggesting that slum goes back to this language play. Here is another sl-noun and it denotes something ugly. Like slums in metallurgy, slums “a squalid district” is used mainly in the plural.
Featured image credit: Salt Lake City smog by Eltiempo10. CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.