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Sex, squalor and Soho: how the word ‘sleaze’ gained its meaning

·1-min read

The defenestration of Matt Hancock was only the latest event to attract renewed calls of “Tory sleaze”, first popular as a description of the grubby priapism of John Major’s 1990s government. But where does the word “sleaze” come from?

You may well ask, for even the OED records the adjective “sleazy” as “of uncertain origin”. In the 17th century, “sleasie” was used as shorthand for Silesia, a kind of cloth from that region (now mainly in Poland), and the word subsequently could mean “thin or flimsy in texture”, though its very first recorded use, from 1644, means “hairy”.

The modern sense of “sleazy” as squalid, usually in a sexual way, didn’t emerge until the 20th century, attributed first to the novel Men Working (1941) by John Faulkner (brother of the more celebrated William). The noun “sleaze”, meanwhile, was formed in the 1960s, used to describe the atmosphere of London’s Soho.

No doubt there is “sleaze” aplenty in the corridors of Westminster today, but the epithet might work too as an unintended euphemism for more serious charges of “cronyism” in the awarding of sinecures and contracts. Next to actual corruption, “sleaze” is but a sideshow.

Steven Poole’s A Word for Every Day of the Year is published by Quercus.

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