Thursday, October 17, 2013



Last week we took a look at things “of the earth.” Why not move this week to just plain old dirt?

The word dirt came to English through Middle English (drit or drytt, which meant mud, dirt or dung) originating in the Norse word, drit. Back in the 1300s it was also used figuratively to make fun of people. The word dirty was born some two centuries later (originally dritty to match its Middle English kin). Though dirty originally meant muddy, dirty or dung-covered, by the 1590s it had grown to also mean smutty or morally unclean.

When compared with its synonym soil, dirt is one of the myriad words that reflects a prejudice against Germanic, Anglo-Saxon & Norse terms in favor of Latin and Greek (due in part to the events following the Battle of Hastings). We English speakers generally consider soil (from the Latin word solium or solum) to be a classier person’s term for that lowly, horrible word dirt. I have a fascination with this prejudice & hope to expound on it more thoroughly soon.

But, back to dirt.

In the 1670s, English speakers could pull dirty tricks on one another.

By 1764, we could ask someone to do our dirty work.

By 1821 the term dirt cheap was born.

In the 1850s the mining trade gave us the literal term paydirt. By 1873 that term had become figurative, meaning profit or success.

It wasn’t until 1926 that dirt picked up the meaning gossip, This usage was introduced by none other than Ernest Hemingway.

Though dirty looks have been going on for centuries, we didn’t call them that until 1926.

And in 1932 the term dirty old man was born, to be artfully portrayed by Arte Johnson as Tyrone F. Horneigh a mere 40 years later.

Please, good followers, leave a thought regarding Tyrone F. Horneigh & his unrequited love for Gladys Ormphby, or maybe say something about dirt.

My thanks go out to this week’s sources: the OED, Wordnik, & Etymonline.


  1. Ah, delightful to dish the dirt with you, sir! More delightful because your language is not dirty, though you speak of dirt. You shall receive applause, not dirty looks, for this excellent post.

    I love these word challenges far too much :)

  2. Arte Johnson! One of the great dirty old men of all time. He could make "Walnetto" sound dirty indeed. Thanks for dishing the dirt.

  3. Hi Rachel6 & Anne,
    I'm glad all this dirt worked for you.

  4. How cool is it that Hemingway himself coined "dirt" as gossip. Seems right, I would say. I look forward to your take on "soil" vs."dirt." I prefer good old get-your-hands-in-there-and-nails-full-of-dirt myself.