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Word Improvisation
by J. E. Lighter

Eyes on the Ball
Investigations of slang by the editor of the Random House Dictionary of American Slang

THE Democratic political strategist James Carville ("It's the economy, stupid!") has characterized current probes into possible White House mischief as just plain scuzzy -- a word meaning "dirty" or "sleazy" that within a generation has moved from the realm of the recherché squarely into the mainstream of American slang. (The dictionary-disapproved Goofballspelling skuzzy exists for those who prefer a more jagged-on-the-page look.) Evidence -- never as much as we'd like in such cases -- points to the early 1960s as the era when scuzzy began to make its move into the national vocabulary. Some connect it to drill instructors at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot at Parris Island in the 1950s, lexical innovators long celebrated for their voluble irascibility. We do know that by New Year's Day of 1965 Time was reporting the derivative noun scuzz as college lingo for an unwholesome campus character; barf and lunchbucket were mentioned as near synonyms. Whoever originated it, scuzzy seems to have sprung full-blown from a union of scummy and fuzzy, with scruffy and possibly disgusting in attendance as midwives. If indeed thus created (and no other etymology has officially been proposed), scuzzy is a blend worthy of Lewis Carroll in his Jabberwockian prime. Compare the now-standard chortle, which Carroll concocted from chuckle and snort; like scuzzy, it must have filled a preconscious need.

Oddball The disparaging scuzz of the sixties has evolved into the equally disparaging scuzzball of the 1980s and 1990s. As the essayist and novelist Nicholson Baker has noted, the suffix -ball has become an important resource for the slangy smart-alecks of our time. Think of the belittling butterball, cheeseball, cornball, dirtball, goofball, hairball, nutball, oddball, sleazeball, slimeball, and weirdball. Most of these arrived well after mid-century, and in most the -ball element is only a metaphor. The spiritual progenitor of this burgeoning array of ball-bearing compounds, though, is undoubtedly a real ball -- the familiar screwball, first noted in print in 1928. Originally this designated the deceptive baseball pitch that breaks in a direction opposite to that of an ordinary curve ball. The screwball (similar to the earlier fadeaway) gained its nom de guerre largely through the efforts of Carl Hubbell, the left-handed Hall of Fame ace who pitched for the New CheeseballYork Giants from 1928 to 1943. The winner of twenty-four consecutive games stretching over the 1936 and 1937 seasons, Hubbell perfected his signature screwball in the minors; he remembered having a catcher in Oklahoma tell him the pitch was "the screwiest thing [he] ever saw." Shortly thereafter the descriptive screwball was bestowed on human beings -- people who display an unpredictable twist. The linguistic leap was made easy by the prior existence of screwy, which had the same connotation. Screwy derives from the nineteenth-century expression "having a screw loose"-- that is, "having something missing or defective," as in machinery ("There's a screw loose somewhere ..."). A screwy person habitually demonstrates eccentric or just plain nutty behavior. (English-speakers around the world love to come up with new ways to describe such people.)

Thanks to directors like William A. "Wild Bill" Wellman and comic stars like Carole Lombard, screwball got a shot at stardom. The Sleazeballscathing wit behind frenetic romps like Wellman's Nothing Sacred (1937), with Lombard and Fredric March, and Howard Hawks's Bringing Up Baby (1938), with Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant, transcended slapstick. These movies demanded their own shorthand description. Thus was created, in the dreary years of the Depression, the upbeat category of screwball comedy, a phrase now as essential to film criticism as nifty whodunit, epic adventure, and hardboiled thriller.

Scuzzball comedy may not yet be a term of art, but anyone who has seen Police Academy, Porky's, or the scuzz classic Caddyshack knows that it is a chilling reality.

Illustrations by Gary Baseman
Copyright © 1998 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; June 1998; Eyes on the Ball; Volume 281, No. 6; page 108.

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