I am taking a couple of weeks off and am happy to present tastings by some of the avid word tasters who regularly read my word tasting notes. Today’s tasting is by Margaret Gibbs.
My daughter opened the door of my condo, took two steps in, gasped, backed up two steps, and stood beating her head gently against the door. “Why did I ever agree to this? I will never understand how the pair of you can be such slovens!”
My granddaughter and I, temporarily roomies so she could have a shorter commute to her summer job, looked around us in some puzzlement. Granted, it would be hard to put down a piece of paper since there were no clear surfaces on which to put anything, but we knew what was in which pile and where. And only one of the cats had come out to greet Carrie, but we knew the other one was prowling among the stacks of cartons covering the living room floor because we could hear him scrabbling and meowing somewhere. He didn’t sound panicky. Yet.
“Mum, for years and years you were a consultant cataloguer! Bringing order out of chaos was your specialty,” Carrie wailed. “And you!” She rounded on her firstborn. “An engineering student who’s always chanting, ‘Nobody wants to cross a bridge designed by a careless engineer’. So why at home,” she repeated, covering her eyes and shuddering, “are you both such SLOVENS!”
Bethany laughed, then hastily turned it into a cough as her mother fixed her with a gimlet eye. Neither of us wanted to spoil the summer’s living arrangement, which suited us both happily. “Sorry, Mum, but if ever a word sounded like what it meant, ‘sloven’ is it. It’s such a messy word, isn’t it, Grandma? No two letters repeated, and it starts out hissing like a tire going flat and then kind of falls back down your throat somewhere.”
I took my cue and seized the distraction. “Yes, think of all the sloppy words that start with sl— . Slump, slouch, slur, slide and the past tense they were so fond of in ‘Pogo’, ‘he slud in jes’ in time’.”
“What language does it come from?” Beth asked brightly. Carrie, not fooled, glared at her.
“I’ll take a stab and say Dutch, but the Germanic languages are not my specialty. Let’s look it up.” We moved to the computer (Beth, firing up her laptop) and the bookcase (me, after shoving aside several large boxes of indeterminate contents). She got several hits quickly as I thumbed through the first dictionary to hand.
“You were close, Grandma,” she announced. “It says here sloven is from the Middle Flemish sloovin, a scold, related to sloeuf, untidy or shabby, from Proto-Germanic slup plus a suffix.” Beth looked puzzled. “I don’t see the connection between being untidy and being a scold.”
“I do,” said Carrie grimly. “Leave your room looking like the aftermath of a tornado and your mother turns into a scold.”
Beth read further. “It says here that sloven is related to slob, slow, sloth, slush, slurp, sloof – what? oh, that’s Dutch for an apron? huh? – a male slattern? and ‘slut’!! Excuuuuse me?!”
“Do you want to break that news to Tyler?” I muttered to Carrie, who laughed in spite of herself. Tyler is Beth’s boyfriend of long standing. I looked at the screen over her shoulder. “Ah, I see the problem. What made you go to that website first? Such slovenly scholarship.”
“It was the first hit,” she said, a bit defensively.
“Well, try that one.” I pointed to another hit further down the screen. “The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. I’ve got the book version here, but it’s probably an older edition. See if the entry is still the same.”
She peered at the new site rather more suspiciously. “Oh. I see. This one says sloven meant a knave or rascal in the fifteenth century, an idle fellow by the sixteenth century, and later just ‘a careless or negligent person’. And it says it’s perhaps based on Flemish sloef meaning dirty or squalid, or Dutch slof, negligent.”
“Pretty much what it says here,” I said, closing my book. “They haven’t changed their minds.”
“So why was the first site I looked at so different? And it was all over the place, like somebody wrote the entry in a big hurry and didn’t even edit it?”
“Just what I said,” I replied. “Slovenly scholarship. Now you and I, Beth, may be untidy – all right, Carrie, extremely messy – physically, but mentally we’re both logical and organized.”
“And,” added Beth primly, “we are definitely not a pair of sluts!”
Carrie looked around the room again. What she could see of it under the detritus of clutter. “You couldn’t possibly be,” she commented dryly. “There’s no clear space big enough to lie down.”