Would you rather go to a sketchy place or a scuzzy place?
What would you say is the difference between the two?
What about people – would you more likely avoid someone who was sketchy or someone who was scuzzy? What about if they were scummy? Slimy? Sleazy? Skeevy? How would you describe the differences?
Now how about a mountain – would you rather go for a climb on a mountain that was described as sketchy or one described as scuzzy?
That last one is a trick, because there actually is a mountain called Scuzzy Mountain. It’s beyond Hope. It’s beyond Hell’s Gate. In other words, it’s a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Vancouver up the Trans-Canada Highway along the Fraser River, right near Boston Bar. But when I look at pictures of hikes up it (on Steven’s Peak-Bagging Journey and on Alpine Baking), although it does look sketchy in a few places, it doesn’t look scuzzy at all – when you get to the top it’s nothing but clean, clear air.
Apparently the mountain has had that name for longer than English has had the word scuzzy in the way we know it. The mountain got its name from Scuzzy Creek, a creek that was used for gold panning by prospectors during the gold rush, but however scuzzy the prospectors probably were, its name doesn’t come from that; it may be a rendition of a word meaning ‘jump’ in Nłeʔkepmxcín, a local language, or it may be from Skuzzy, the name of a sternwheeler that was the first such boat to get through the rapids north of Yale on the Fraser. (I don’t know where the Skuzzy got its name.)
OK, so you probably wouldn’t call a mountain “scuzzy” normally, because scuzzy comes (as far as we know) from a blend of scummy and fuzzy and basically means ‘gross, shady (not in a good way), unclean, disreputable, unkempt’ and similar things. Sketchy, meanwhile, as I’ve written about before (two times), has an assortment of senses ranging from ‘difficult to discern’ to ‘baleful’. But how about a place – say, a bar (not necessarily a Boston bar)? A sketchy bar would be like the one on Tatooine where Luke Skywalker nearly got killed by some intergalactic dirtbag. But that bar was quite clean. A scuzzy bar might or might not be dangerous, but it wouldn’t be clean. You could expect your arms to stick to the bartop if you leaned on it.
And a scuzzy person? Unclean, to be sure, but probably also a little disreputable. But not as chancy as a sketchy one. On the other hand, you could meet someone in a bank boardroom or a capitol office who you would describe as scummy, slimy, or sleazy, or maybe even skeevy, but it would be unusual to meet someone sketchy in such a place, and almost unthinkable to meet someone scuzzy in the shiny wood-panelled corridors of wealth and power.
Now let’s try it with derivative nouns and see how it goes: scuzzbag, sketchbag, scumbag, sleazebag, slimebag (admittedly slimeball is more usual). You’ve probably met all of these kinds of people; I know I have. But I have met someone I would describe as a sleazebag, a slimebag, in fact a scumbag (really about the lowest you can go in terms of character), in a high-floor boardroom in the financial district of Toronto (not to do business with him per se; he happened to be on the board of an organization I was, coincidentally, about to end my association with). I have also met scuzzbags and sketchbags, but always at street level – sometimes in drinking establishments or similar, and sometimes more literally at street level. I think I would trust my wallet around a scuzzbag but maybe not around a sketchbag; around a scumbag slimebag sleazebag, on the other hand, my wallet would not likely be the issue – that kind of person often does crime through institutional means.
We have always had scuzzy people and scuzzy things, of course. But we have only had the word scuzzy since – would you like to guess? – the late 1960s. The noun scuzz (sometimes spelled scuz) showed up at the same time. Scuzzbag, scuzzball, and scuzzbucket appeared in the 1980s.
Oh, and also in the 1980s, we got the Small Computer System Interface connector, universally abbreviated as SCSI, which is also pronounced “scuzzy.” But while it was a standard connector two decades ago, if you find one now it might very well be scuzzy – because it’s old and dirty. Everything I used to use SCSI for I now use USB for… or wireless. And there’s nothing less scuzzy than clean, clear air.