Did you just call someone a scumbag? Uh-oh, I think your snobbery is showing


Pic credit: Dave Meier via StockSnap

Earlier this week, while I was (of course) trying to figure out the latest in online blogger/snapper drama, I heard someone use the word "scumbag". It obviously wasn't the first time I'd heard the word and – before we go any further – I should confess: I have used the word myself. I think we all have. But what does it even mean?

The origin of the word "scumbag"

Rather disgustingly, the word "scumbag" was first used to refer to a straining bag for refining sugar. Later, in the early 20th century, it was used to refer to a (used) condom – for obvious reasons. In the 1970s, the word evolved to its current dictionary meaning: a despicable person. (It was also the title of a John Lennon and Yoko Ono track released in 1971.)

As a term for a despicable person, it feels like the word "scumbag" should be acceptable – but at some stage between the 1970s and now, it evolved again and is now almost exclusively used to refer to "more troubling facets of society": usually working-class men or women who may or may not have addiction problems. Without endorsing this use of the word, it would also be pretty easy to illustrate this idea of the "scumbag" using an individual's style of dress, occupation or postcode.

In short, it's about snobbery

Essentially, middle-class people use the word "scumbag" much as the use the word "knacker" – and as, I'd wager, they would've used the word "tinker" in the 1980s – to refer to people they consider, in terms of class, to be beneath them: the working class, members of the Travelling Community, people who are on social welfare, teenagers who wear their pyjamas to go to the shop and more.

Using words like "scumbag" really simplifies the issues that face our society – and every society – when it comes to class and, specifically, the plight of the working-class. It implies that agency is the only thing that matters, and denies the fact that structure exists. That is to say: it assumes that everyone has a choice in how they live their lives, and why that is true to a certain extent, we all have to bear in mind the situation each individual finds him or herself in.

Individuals who remove themselves entirely from their situation – who defy their structure to utilise their agency for change – are the exception, rather than the rule. Change is difficult (although not impossible).

It's us vs the "other"

The use of dehumanising words like "scumbag" also, crucially, allows us to distance ourselves. It gives us a very clear sense of "them vs us". This person is a "scumbag"; they do things we disagree with; they are in no way like us, and we would in no way ever be like them. But is that even true?

Who's to say who you'd be – who I'd be – if we'd been born into a different circumstance, with a different level of finance, a different level of education, with fewer opportunities to really exercise our free will and a more fatalistic sense of our pre-determined fate?

Y'know what else? It's gross

All of this talk of structure vs agency, us vs them, dehumanisation and pre-determination is all well and good – and so interesting, it'd almost make me want to go and do a PhD – but it overlooks the very simple fact that using pejorative words to describe people you don't know, based entirely on a perception you have about them is gross.

It's no better, to my mind than using highly offensive language to describe people of colour, or using derogatory slut-shaming language to discuss women who enjoy sex.

It basically makes you look small and a bit stupid, and as if you've never quite got past your teenage years. Ultimately, I'd argue that the only "scumbag" in that equation is the person speaking.

This isn't the first time I've talked about Dubliners' problem with language – check out my Dublin Live piece on why we all need to stop using the word "junkie".