Mind your language

To avoid knowing the distasteful origin of ‘scumbag’, look away now

13 October 2018

9:00 AM

13 October 2018

9:00 AM

President Vladimir Putin of Russia remarked of Sergei Skripal, whom his agents tried to kill, ‘He’s simply a scumbag.’ Scumbag at least is how the press translated his words. I’m afraid that from my sheltered life I did not know the literal meaning of scumbag. Look away now if you’d rather not know and I’ll join you at the next paragraph. Literally it is ‘a condom’, an Americanism first recorded in 1967, which is also the first year in which scum meaning ‘semen’ is recorded.

An equivalent derogatory term also of American origin, used in the television cartoon Family Guy, is douchebag. This is older than scumbag in its literal sense, referring to a vaginal douche since the 1880s, and passing into military slang as a term of abuse in the 1940s.


Of course, Mr Putin didn’t use any such American English term, but said podonok. This tends to be translated according to prevailing English fashions for abuse: rogue, bastard, scum, scoundrel, stinker, jerk, crud, schmuck, for example. Obviously, rogue is useless these days, since it is often preceded the adjective lovable. Literally, Mr Putin’s word is to do with the bottom. It derives from the proto-Indo-European root *dhwebh. The h’s indicate an aspirated form of the d and b. The asterisk indicates this is a reconstructed form, unrecorded in writing, which is not surprising since no one was writing things down on the Pontic-Caspian steppe four or five thousand years ago.

You might ask: what kind of bottom? The deep kind. I’m told that the Welsh du, ‘black’, derives from the same source. We’re talking about the bottom where dregs are found. Gorky’s play The Lower Depths is in Russian literally At the Bottom, the noun being related to podonok.

In my circles, to call a class of people scum or dregs is not quite the thing. It’s a little like Nicolas Sarkozy’s exclamation in 2005 on visiting the riot-scarred neighbourhoods of Argenteuil: ‘Vous en avez assez de cette bande de racailles.’ His choice of racailles was thought not nice.

It’s very hard for us to place Mr Putin socially. For a transatlantic audience, the translators probably did an accurate job putting scumbag on his lips.

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