or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Friday, April 07, 2006

A Sackful of Trouble

Here's an amusing article from Slate about the mild furor over a theoretically bad word in the New York Times crossword puzzle.

The word in question, defined as "Scoundrel", was "scumbag". (Answers.com defines it only as "A person regarded as despicable".) The word is well-known and inoffensive enough that a one-time character on "The Simpsons" was named Jimmy the Scumbag. The problem is that the original meaning of "scumbag" is "a condom", for reasons that should be obvious on reflection.

The article's author, Jesse Sheidlower, makes a number of good points, one of which is that there doesn't seem to be any good reason that "condom" should be considered a dirty word. However, he misses one I consider salient: there are a number of mildly fanciful words in common currency ending in "-bag" that are more or less synonymous with "scumbag", such as "dirtbag" and "sleazebag". ("Douchebag" doesn't quite count, because a douchebag is an actual object; it fits the pattern, though, and certainly contributes to the suffix's use.) "-Bag" has become a de facto suffix suggesting "bad person" when appended to a bad thing; predictably, "shitbag" also exists in English.

I think it's safe to say--as Sheidlower does--that the metaphorical meaning has so eclipsed the literal meaning that "scumbag" is safe for the public eye.


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