Dear Word Detective: I haven’t been able to find an etymology for the word “sleazy.” can you help? — Jon.
Sure, that’s what I’m here for. I mean “to help,” not “for sleazy,” of course. Then again, since you found me on the internet, you’ve no doubt already stumbled on more “sleazy” than any sane person can stand. I actually wrote a column on “sleazy” many years ago, but that was before the internet and sleaze-on-demand cable TV (not to mention pole-dancing classes at the local Y) made “sleaze” truly a household word, so we’ll give it another go.
I was going to venture my own bespoke definition of “sleazy” to kick off the festivities, but, as is so often the case, my imagination can’t hold a candle to that of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED): “Dilapidated, filthy, slatternly, squalid; sordid, depraved, disreputable, worthless.” I remember, back when Monica Lewinsky was on every front page, getting a call from a newspaper asking me to write an article about the lurid terms that were being used to describe the scandal. Now I’m thinking I should simply have referred them to the hyperventilating folks at Oxford.
Given the vehemence of that definition, it’s a bit disappointing that the OED notes that “sleazy” is “of uncertain origin,” especially since they note that the term has, in the past quarter-century, spawned such useful forms as “sleazeball,” “sleazebag” and “sleaze factor” (“Mr. Meese … had become the outstanding symbol of the so-called ‘sleaze factor’ which has bedeviled the Reagan administration,” 1983).
While it is true that there is no absolutely proven explanation of the origin of “sleazy,” there is a reasonable and frequently-made argument that ties the word to Silesia, a historically important region of Central Europe that today lies mostly within Poland (with small bits falling inside the Czech Republic and Germany). In the 17th century, Silesia produced fine cloth esteemed all over Europe, and in England “Silesia” was used as a general term for high-quality linen or cotton cloth. Over time, “Silesia” in this sense was shortened to “sleazy,” and cotton cloth became known as “sleazy cloth.”
Although “sleazy cloth” made in Silesia was of high quality, by the second half of the 17th century, “sleazy” had taken on the meaning of “thin or flimsy,” perhaps because by then merchants were selling all kinds of junk labeled “sleazy.” In any case, “sleazy” quickly came to be applied to anything characterized by inferior construction, shoddy materials, or flimsy reasoning (“Their vain, and sleasy opinions about Religion,” 1648). Interestingly, the “filthy and squalid” sense of “sleazy” didn’t appear until the 1940s, and “sleaze” as a noun meaning “a person or thing of low moral standards” didn’t arrive until the late 1960s.