Where Did the Word “Scumbag” Come From?

Matt Blitz 5
Mondagiriaksita asks: I was told a scumbag was originally a condom. Is this really where the word came from?

scumbad“Scum” originated in the early 14th century from the Middle Dutch word “schume” meaning foam or froth. There was also a similar word in old French – escume. For about two hundreds years, the word evolved to mean a “thin layer atop of liquid,” then it became “a layer of dirt,” and then, just simply, dirt.

In 1586, the phrase “scum of Africa” showed up in the Christopher Marlowe play Tamburlaine, this marked the first known time scum was used as an insult, though that trend would be frequently repeated elsewhere after this: “These are the cruell pirates of Argeire, That damned traine, the scum of Affrica.”

In 1604 it had evolved to include worthless bits that rise to the surface during the process of purifying metal: “There was a great store of these poore mettalls, whereof they made no great account, but were rejected…as the skumme of the good mettall.” (de Acosta’s Natural History of the Indies)

As for the first use of “scumbag,” this was not, as is popular stated, a condom.  Rather, in 1812, Abraham Rees compiled 45 volumes of an encyclopedia entitled, simply, Rees’s Encyclopedia. In the 34th volume, dedicated to the arts, sciences, and literature, Rees referred to a scumbag in relation to a straining bag when refining sugar:

Having kept it simmering for several hours, and having provided a cooler or receiver, over which is placed a strong wooden frame, and upon this a basket, to which a coarse bag, called the scum-bag, is fitted, he pours the contents of his pan into this basket and bag… and a strong board, called a scum-board, is laid upon the bags, with several weights upon the board, to press down the scum.

This use of the word obviously relates back to the “foam or froth” definition of scum.

Over the next century to a century and a half, the word evolved into meaning something quite different. Scumbag, as referencing a condom, seems to have first appeared in volume nine of the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry in 1939. However, I was unable to get access to the source material on this one, though several otherwise normally reputable sources do cite it as the first instance and I have no particular reason to think they’re wrong, just normally I like to read it for myself before presenting something like that as a fact.

The Oxford English Dictionary disagrees with the 1939 reference, and puts the first reference much later. However, although the OED is one of the best with this sort of thing, even they aren’t immune to occasional mistakes. This wouldn’t be the first time I’ve seen the OED wrong on the first documented instance of something, and you’re about to read another confirmed instance of this.  But considering the scope and depth of their work, I think we can all give them an occasional pass. :-)

In any event, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary and Oxford English Dictionary date “scumbag,” in reference to a used condom, to 1967, with the first known use of “scum” meaning “semen,” according to the OED, being in that same year in Wentworth & Flexner’s Dictionary of American Slang.

Whether the 1939 American Journal of Orthopsychiatry instance is valid or not, the 1967 reference is definitely not. In a book entitled Sex Histories of American College Men published in 1960, college-aged males were calling condoms this by this time: “According to him and the rest of the boys, the name of the thing was scum bag.”

The word popped up more and more from there, and in June 1971, Frank Zappa, John Lennon, and Yoko Ono recorded a live track at Filmore East in New York City that they called “Scumbag.” By 1972, the word was also being used to describe a “despicable person,” which has been the more common definition ever since.

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Bonus Facts:

  • A “scumbag” controversy erupted on the pages of the New York Times in 2006. In its weekly crossword puzzle, the Times made the answer to 43 down “scumbag.” This didn’t sit well for a number of older readers. Allen Siegel, an assistant managing editor, revealed to Slate that, “We got dozens of angry messages from readers, as well as complaints from colleagues on the staff.” Apparently there was a generation gap here with no one realizing the word “scumbag” had a much more obscene definition than “despicable person” and, considering the Times’ strict rules on content, it should have never made it into the crossword puzzle. Even Will Shortz, the Times’ crossword guru, wrote that, “The thought never crossed my mind this word could be controversial.”
  • The more well-known and clichéd phrase “scum of the earth” first appeared in the early 18th century.  Reverend George William Lemoin published one of the earliest etymological dictionaries of the English language in 1783. In it, there’s an entry for “scum,” which acknowledges the association of it with foam and froth. Additionally, the phrase “scum of the earth” is used several times in association with other words, like “scrub” and “hilding” throughout the book. “Cat’s Pyjamas: The Penguin Book of Cliches” claims the phrase gained popularity and cliche status thanks to the Duke of Wellington, who upon seeing Napoleon’s Army during the Napoleonic Wars in the early 19th century, called them “the mere scum of the earth.”
  • Tamburlaine is a play loosely based on the life of the Central Asian emperor, Timur nicknamed, at least in this instance, as “Timur the Lame.” Written by Christopher Marlowe in 1587 or 1588, it was considered a landmark because it was one of the first successes of London’s public stage. Marlowe, himself, was also quite a well-known and much-discussed figure. Rumored to be an inspiration to Shakespeare (despite them being the same age), the only play of his to be published prior to his death was Tamburlaine. On May 18, 1593, a warrant was issued for his arrest and, to this day, no one is quite sure why. Speculation is that it was related to charges of blasphemy and a manuscript he wrote that contained “vile heretical conceipts.” Either way, on May 28th, at the age of 29, he was stabbed to death by Ingram Frizer. There’s still debate about if it was related to his arrest or not.

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5 Comments »

  1. Dave Williams June 7, 2014 at 10:10 am - Reply

    I’ve always hoped that if someone called me “scum,” I’d have the presence of mind to say “Scum rises: thank you.”

  2. John Belyeu August 1, 2014 at 7:41 am - Reply

    It has been my understanding, or that of my family, which is why calling a sibling a “scum bag” was cause for immediate, painful, reproach from the parents, was that a scum bag was something attached to a syphilitic penis to catch the invariable ooze (scum)…maybe you could shed more light on this angle?

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