Not long ago, John Timpane, the uncredited gossip columnist of my local Philadelphia Inquirer, noted that Sandra Bullock “reported getting slagged all over the Internet for being – over 40. How dare she?

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the transitive verb “slag” as “To abuse or denigrate (a person); to criticize, insult”; following it with the word “off” is optional. The term dates only from the early ’70s, the OED’s first citations being Jamie Mandelkau, the manager of the rock band The Deviants, in 1971 (“He was doing a good job of bad mouthing and slagging me to a number of the Angels”), and The Guardian in 1972, which provided a helpful etymological note: “Mr Jack Jones, general secretary of the Transport and General Workers’ Union, was ‘slagged off’—in dockland jargon—several times during the day.”

All the OED citations are from British sources, and the term is still far more common on that side of the pond, but it has been making inroads as a NOOB at least since 2007, when Virginia Heffernan wrote in the New York Times (about online culture): “I’ve sat idly by while regular posters slagged off shows or people I like.”

Referring as it does to the waste products of smelting metal, “slag” is a vivid word, and can be effective in an American context, where it’s still a relative novelty. Thus Richard Aregood, also writing in the (NY) Times, about a  press conference from Chris Christie, the governor of New Jersey:

He said he had just learned what everybody in the state had suspected for weeks — that his own people had created a traffic nightmare in Fort Lee to get back at its Democratic mayor. Then he slagged his own people and called them names. Then he wallowed in self-pity for the way they had betrayed him.


14 thoughts on ““Slag”

  1. It has a further slang meaning in the UK as a noun, to desribe a lady of somewhat dubious virtue.

  2. Interesting! I had forgotten the original use of the word slag which in my childhood experience was used to describe the material removed from the pot of molten metal before casting. I’m sure my Scottish relatives described the great pyramid shaped piles at coal mining waste at mines as “Bings” although perhaps memory fails as I would know what was meant by a slag heap. Perhaps the slag heap was by the iron smelters yard.
    So in its current use I would have said the Governor should have “slagged off ” his own people and not “slagged” them. I agree that the noun slag is commonly applied to women who are generally regarded as unappealing as an insult. If I were describing an unfavorable reception of a presentation I had made, I might say the audience “slagged me off”. I can’t think what the equivalent American expression might have been.

  3. I like the Chambers definitions:… “1 the layer of waste material that forms on the surface of molten metal ore during smelting and refining. 2 waste left over from coal mining. 3 scoriaceous lava. 4 vitrified cylinders

    slag3 noun, derog slang someone, especially a woman, who regularly has casual sex with many different people.”

    Although English (of German origin) rather than American, might there be an American connection too, with the word schlock for dross or rubbish?

  4. The word is common in Ireland, where it tends to have playful connotations and be used among friends who might “slag each other off” or give one of their group “an awful slagging” about some minor transgression.

  5. Funnily enough, Stan, it’s a word I tend to associate with Belfast or Northern Ireland, based on people I’ve known. I wonder how long it has been in use in Ireland north or south.

  6. Please excuse the digression.

    Arthur Jack. Your memory is not playing you false, “bings” is what they were and are called. Those around Pumpherston used to be pink. A legacy of the shale oil industry.

    1. That is very kind of you Lurk.
      As a young child riding in the back of my parents car through central Scotland visiting relatives ( in the 50s) I had them pointed out to me although I could barely see out the door window. I used to wonder why Bing Crosby chose that name. Anyway, better that than Slag Crosby.

  7. As far as I’m aware there are at least two older uses of the word slag. When I was a schoolboy in the 1950s, to slag was to spit, and expelled phlegm or spittle was called slag. But I also believe there is an older use associated with sperm and ejaculate. Loose women were referred to as slag bags, etc. Possibly mid 19th century?

  8. In my 1960s youth,there was an old slag heap about a quarter of a mile from my house in the industrial north-east of England. The slag is the molten lime left over from iron-smelting, which is drained off into railway tubs and (in former days), dumped on waste ground. In the depression of the 1920s, homeless men would sleep on the slag heap because it was, for many months, still hot. As kids, we played there (trespassing, obviously), and found that, if you dug down more than about a foot, it was too hot to touch: this 40 years after the foundry closed for ever. I think it was a continuing chemical reaction – quick lime or something.

    When you returned home, you were white with lime from head to foot. My Mam would make me take my clothes off, down to my underwear, on the doorstep.

    So, slag meaning waste, hence all the other uses. German is schlacke, and we also have slack, meaning low-grade or part-burned coal, or cinders.

  9. I’m surprised at the Sandra Bullock’s use of “slagged” without “off”. In the UK I’ve never ever heard “he/she slagged me” – it’s always “he/she slagged me off”, ie criticised me in an unpleasant way. I wonder if it’s actually the misuse of a Britishism by Ms B, or a development of the term.

  10. English East Midlands, 16 years in London: I’ve never heard “slagged” by itself either – it’s always been “slagged off”; “to slag someone off”.

    Peter, you mention ‘the Northumberlandia earth sculpture of the female form’ being known by the locals as ‘Slag Alice’. There are two bits of background info most readers will need:

    The first being the ribald familiar names given to statues (particularly of females). Dubliners call the Molly Malone statue The Tart with the Cart; the statue personifying the River Liffey in Croppies Memorial Park is The Floozie in the Jacuzzi; a nickname also used by Brummies for The River water feature in Birmingham. The Molly Malone statue is also known (it says online) as The Trollop With The Scallop(s).

    The second bit of background info is that ‘Slag Alice’ is a play on ‘slack alice’ – noun (UK colloquial, mostly North Country and Yorkshire English) – A slovenly woman.’ (Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English by Eric Partridge, 8th edition).

    Slack alice echoed around a lot in the early 1970s. There was a British rock band called Slack Alice, and the camp comedian Larry Grayson more famously used the name for one of his imaginary friends, even releasing a song Slack Alice dedicated to the character. In the song, Alice (a coalman’s daughter and barmaid at the Cock and Trumpet) attends a soccer match and throws her knickers in the air to show her displeasure with the referee.

    The previous year a completely different and more successful song ‘Leap Up and Down and Wave Your Knickers in the Air’ had been banned by the BBC, though it still reached number 12 in the singles charts, and was in the chart for 17 weeks.

    That stuff like this needs explaining is testament to the censorship of our cultural history, mainly by the BBC. The Beeb, always ten years behind the times, also kept poor Larry Grayson in the closet, though everyone assumed he was gay. They still would have even if he’d owned pit-bulls instead of his beloved poodles.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s