Thursday 14 January 2010

Slush Funds and Slush Piles

London thaws. Snow becomes slush. I nearly went my length today and as I tottered, windmilling my arms like a mad semaphorist and trying to defy Newton, I suddenly thought: "Why a slush fund?" And that question only led to "Why a slush pile?"

A slush pile, dear reader, is the pile of unasked for manuscripts that accumulates in the corner of a publisher's office until some semi-literate work experience girl is asked to read them and post them back wither they whenced. Was the slush in slush pile purely derogotary, I wondered? Or was there some sense in which frozen writing was slowly thawing?

Once upon a time slush was just melting snow - either from some Scandy language or simply onomatopoeic - but then in 1869 the Oracle came along. The Oracle was Mark Twain's nickname for a pompous travelling companion he had on a cruise of the Mediterranean. In Innocents Abroad the Oracle describes poets thuslyly:

I never see one of them poets yet that knowed anything. He'll go down now and grind out about four reams of the awfullest slush about that old rock [Gibraltar at sunset] and give it to a consul, or a pilot, or a nigger, or anybody he comes across first which he can impose on. Pity but somebody'd take that poor old lunatic and dig all that poetry rubbage out of him. Why can't a man put his intellect onto things that's some value? Gibbons, and Hippocratus, and Sarcophagus, and all them old ancient philosophers was down on poets

We can deduce two things from this: that slush must already have been American slang for drivel, and that poets haven't changed much.

We imported this sense of slush quite quickly and by 1896 The Times was saying that the campaign against capital punishment was "steeped in a sloppy and slushy sentimentalism". Now there's clearly an alliterative bias in the choice of words here right down to the sl, but some sense is implied, I think, of the inchoate nature of slush: ice, water and dirt all mixed together. Inchoate, slushy sentiment is set against ordered, frozen reason. From this we seem to have got the sense of a slushy novel and from that (I'm theorising, of course) we would get the slush pile.

However, on consideration I think it more likely that I've been wasting your time. It could simply be that the snow piled at the side of the road is the last survivor of a thaw and so a slush pile would be the ignored and bothersome stuff that has been put to one side waiting to miserably disappear.

As for a slush fund, that's quite different. That's fat. There's a rule of etymology that pretty much all words are somehow maritime in origin. As Churchill almost put it "Don't talk to me about naval tradition. It's nothing but rum philology and the lash." [comma deliberately omitted] Anyway, in the eighteenth century sailors used to keep all the fat that boiled off their meat rations. They called it slush, perhaps because it sloshed around. When the ship got to port they would sell all their slush (don't ask me to whom) and the money would be divided among the ship's officers. Hence slush fund.

In case you cared - and I am confident you don't - I recovered my balance and, with cautious steps and slow, through London took my solitary way.

Everybody gathered round to hear Nelson inventing a word

P.S. Apparently Churchill did not say "rum, sodomy and the lash", although he wished he had, and Bismarck never said "A language is a dialect with a navy". Ah well.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the theories and for the entertainment! I had been wondering where "slush pile" came from, and this was the only website I found with any information at all. I linked to this on my blog:
    This seems like a fun blog, I'll probably check it out from time to time!