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16 May 2009


Today's word is:


Not a word we romance writers are likely to use a lot - although you never know. It might be quite handy for that historical novel you have simmering on the back burner!

*Michael Quinion says:

"The word sounds vaguely unpleasant, a good example of form matching meaning, since Americans have for 150 years used it for a variety of things that are unpleasant to various degrees.

Dictionaries often say this was its first appearance in print:

'Then he poured for us a beverage which he called "Slum gullion," and it is hard to think he was not inspired when he named it. It really pretended to be tea, but there was too much dish-rag, and sand, and old bacon-rind in it to deceive the intelligent traveler.'
[Roughing It, by Mark Twain, 1872.]

A slang dictionary two years later defined slumgullion as "any cheap, nasty, washy beverage".

Today it means a cheap stew made by throwing anything handy into a pot with water and boiling it, an improvised dish which has had many other names, such as Mulligan stew and Irish stew. Other senses include fish offal or the waste from processing whale carcasses (in Moby-Dick, published in 1851, Herman Melville called it "slobgollion").

We now know the word is a good deal older than the Mark Twain book. Many early examples refer to yet another old sense listed in the dictionaries, for the muddy waste left after washing gold ore in a mining sluice...

American dictionaries guess that it may be a combination of "slum", an old English term meaning slime (nothing to do with a squalid urban area, the word for which is an old bit of slang of unknown origin) plus "gullion", English dialect for mud or a cesspool. This is still known in Scots and is probably from the Irish goilĂ­n for a pit or pool. This certainly fits the mining context of early uses. "

So while 'slumgullion' may not be exactly the first word you're going to think of when writing a romance, it could certainly be used to add colour or character to a story, say set in a mining community in the 1870s. You know, the more one finds out about words like these, the more interesting they become and the more they lead you to think about them and explore possible ways of using them.

*Thanks to Michael Quinion of WORLD WIDE WORDS
World Wide Words is copyright (c) Michael Quinion 2009. All rights reserved. The Words Web site is at http://www.worldwidewords.org