‘Sleaze, sleaze, sleaze!’ exclaimed Sir Keir Starmer in Prime Minister’s Questions last week, hoping that a triple serving might stick. He meant to suggest financial corruption, though his language came from the hospitable semantic field that also corrals sexual meanings.
The sexually dirty also overlaps constantly with the literally dirty. In 2013 Ukip’s Godfrey Bloom remarked that women who didn’t clean behind the fridge were ‘sluts’. This annoyed women who didn’t clean anywhere (but paid foreigners minimal rates to do it) and women who said that his was a sexual accusation. Already, the linguistic battlefield had been churned up by ‘Slut Walks’, in which women donned stereotypical underwear and fishnet stockings as if to prove all men guilty of a rape culture.
Sir Keir was not organising a Sleaze Walk. He was interested in who paid for the Prime Minister’s wallpaper. This financial focus of sleaze emerged from America as recently as the 1980s, when the corrupt were called sleazeballs or sleazebags. In the two preceding decades sleaze in Britain had referred to sexual squalor, with a dash of literal grime.
Sleaze in that meaning derived from sleazy, which was a mixture of ‘dilapidated, filthy, slatternly, squalid; sordid, depraved, disreputable, worthless’, in the analysis of the Oxford English Dictionary. It ranged from ‘the sleazy comforts of Mrs Turner’s kitchen’ in Mrs Gailey, Sheila Kaye-Smith’s novel of 1951 — when there wouldn’t have been a fridge to clean behind — to a sentence in W.A. Percy’s Lanterns on the Levee (1941): ‘I was always happening on a Hermaphrodite, in some discreet alcove, and I would examine the sleazy mock-modest little monster.’ The things people get up to in dictionaries!
Originally, in the 17th century, sleazy meant ‘hairy’. That lovable romantic Sir Kenelm Digby wrote of some liquors that were ‘hairy or sleasy, that is, have little downy partes, such as you see upon the legges of flies’. Such downiness was bad in fabrics that by a loose weave wore badly, and so sleazy came to mean lacking substance or worth. Whether the flies’ legs come home to roost in Downing Street we shall see.