Thursday, October 7, 2021

Language Of Confusion: Grimy Words

I have no scary etymologies left. I guess grime is kind of scary, especially in a post-pandemic world.
Grime showed up in the late sixteenth century, but no one really knows where it came from. It might be from the Middle English grim, dirt or filth, which makes sense, although you know how these etymologies are. You might think it was related to grim in some way, but as far as I can tell, no, not at all. The Middle English grim comes from the Middle Low German greme and Proto Germanic grim-, to smear, which is from the Proto Indo European ghrei-, to rub, which is not where our grim comes from.
Scum showed up in the early fourteenth century, coming to us from the Middle Dutch schume, foam. Middle Dutch! Now that’s a language we don’t see here much. It’s another Germanic language, though, which is why schume comes from the Proto Germanic skuma-, which might be from the Proto Indo European skeu-, cover or conceal.
Now this one is really recent, having only shown up in 1965 as slang, the music/fashion use of the word not coming until 1989. It’s definitely related to grungy and probably formed from it, though they came into existence in the same year. Grungy is thought to be a mashup of the words grubby and dingy, which makes sense, and also makes me wonder how many other words with uncertain origins may just be two other words smashed together.
Since we already mentioned grubby, we might as well look at it. Itshowed up meaning stunted in the seventeenth century, infested with grubs in the eighteenth century, then dirty (specifically a dirty child) in 1845, and it is indeed related to the word grub. Now grub, as in the insect, showed up in the fifteenth century, but it was also a verb that meant to dig in the ground (probably where the insect definition came from), and that word showed up in the fourteenth century. It’s from the Old English grybban/grubbian, and before that the West Germanic grubbjan, and earlier the Proto Indo European ghrebh-, to dig, which happens to be the origin word for grave.
And to finish things off, dingy. It showed up fairly recently, in 1736, in the Kentish dialect of English. It’s another word where the origin is uncertain, though it might be related to dung. And it used to be a derogatory word for people of color in the mid nineteenth century, because of course it was.
Online Etymology Dictionary
University of Texas at Austin Linguistic Research Center
University of Texas at San Antonio’s page on Proto Indo European language
University of Texas at Arlington
Tony Jebson’s page on the Origins of Old English
Old English-English Dictionary
Encyclopaedia Britannica
Merriam-Webster Dictionary
History Of The Dutch Language


  1. Didn't realize grunge was so recent. And then the Seattle music scene made it huge.

  2. I did not know grunge and grungy was such a recent word. I wonder if grunge was coined for the music scene as that's when it all started, pretty much. What is that word? Portmanteau? How many of our words are? Some surprise me.

  3. Scum comes in handy describing a fair bit of people.

  4. I don't know, some of these words are pretty scary.


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