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Sloppy Origins (2020-03-02)

Rare preserved set of seventeenth century sailor's slops held at the museum of london. Rare preserved set of seventeenth century sailor's slops held at the museum of london.
Rare preserved set of seventeenth century sailor's slops held at the museum of london.

Quite some time ago, despite being a grown adult, an older adult saw fit to give me a long lecture about my "sloppy" clothing. The focus was particularly on some military surplus fatigues I had been wearing while out on a long and vigorous walk – that is, exercising. It was quite surreal to be told off for this, especially because at the time I was in a town hosting a military base, so military fatigues were quite a common sight all told, though of course mine were anything but current. The lecture wasn't particularly helpful, but it did end up leaving me pondering that odd word "sloppy." It may even be related to a now obscure second meaning of the verb "to lop" which now we associated primarily with cutting something, especially a branch off, but also refers to hanging loosely or limply. The two meanings do seem associated. Adding "s" as a prefix to a verb in english often seems to go with taking the quality captured by the verb and expressing it in ways that imply a passive aspect. In the case of "to lop" for instance we can find "to slop" where say "slopping" water out of a pail is usually unintentional, and the verb itself has pejorative connotations of carelessness. So understandably a person may interpret "sloppy" as a term that must mean the person so described is careless, even lazy, and a thing described as "sloppy" carelessly or lazily made. This seems obvious. Then I stumbled on some additional information that provided new food for thought.

UPDATE 2019-10-02 - There is another word that seems related to these conceptually, "clobber." Most of us are probably most familiar with it as a verb meaning to thoroughly beat someone up or defeat a person or team in a competition. In reading Dorothy Thompson's book of essays Outsiders: Class, Gender, and Nation, she refers at one point to all her family's "clobber." Context suggested that a canadian would say "stuff" for "clobber," and indeed a quick foray into the OED reveals that the word is also an informal british english mass noun referring to "clothing, personal belongings, or equipment" that can be dated to the late nineteenth century but has no known origin. We can safely surmise that british people with titles don't generally use the word. It's quite an unusually shaped word though, and sorely tempts a conjecture that it is an extension from the verb "to clobber" because those subjected to a military defeat would typically be pillaged of their clothing, belongings, and equipment afterward. If this conjecture got any wider play, it would soon fall into the linguistic category of "folk etymology."

The new information is part of a scholarly article describing servants' working conditions in england and its colonies through much of the nineteenth century. Household servants could generally expect room and board, plus basic clothing to do their work in. In fancier establishments, that clothing might be livery, elaborate clothing intended to differentiate servants working for the rich from those working for what today we anachronistically refer to as the middle class, as well as differentiating the servants of different houses from each other. People who today we might call lower middle class, again, anachronistically, and even a bit lower down the scale than that, might provide slops, or rough, even hand-me-down garments to do work in. The OED notes that "slops" was originally a term for any worker's loose garments, without stating overtly that these would typically be general labourers who would be doing physically intensive labour, as well as tradespeople. The term could also refer especially to the clothes and bedding provided to sailors in the english navy. These garments were and are loose for the same reason most workout clothes still are: for ease of movement, allowing for good circulation, and helping wick away and dry sweat. This is a bit different from the role of a smock, which is generally a sort of protective shirt used to keep paint, plaster, or dirt off of the shirt a person is wearing underneath. The underlying verb in "smock" doesn't exist in english anymore, and the OED suggests it was old english "smûgan," meaning to creep into. Maybe the notion old english speakers had in mind is how a person has to wriggle a bit to get into a long shirt or night gown.

So with this material in mind, it seems like "slops" as a noun shouldn't have had any especially bad connotations to it. Loose workers' clothes were simply practical, especially if we think of such examples as sailors and stevedores hauling on ropes and moving heavy gear, or labourers digging ditches. The trouble of course, is that this type of clothing is particularly associated with manual labour often carried out by severely exploited people. If you are getting handed clothes to wear by an employer, the employer's concerns are to clothe you as cheaply as possible while making sure you aren't mistaken for anyone else's employee. That way as an employer you can be parsimonious and then charge employees for theft if they run away with their slops on. So there was not a lot of drive to make sure that slops were loose to facilitate ease of movement, but not so ill-fitting as to make a person look ridiculous or potentially become a hazard because they were too big. Today it is still considered acceptable to look down on people whose primary work is general labour because supposedly they lacked the character to "better themselves." This is a totally unjust generalization at any time, and ties into stigmatizing poverty. After all, two details that give away that a child is dressed in hand-me-downs is that they show visible signs of repair and especially that they are too big. Effectively then, to accuse someone of looking sloppy is to accuse them of looking poor.

I think it is no coincidence then that over the past twenty years or so, workout gear has become more and more form-fitting. This isn't just about people possibly wanting to express their vanity by using their workout clothes to expose without exposing their trim figures. The various new synthetic fabrics used in the now omnipresent spandex shorts and running tights alongside the almost complete rout of jogging suits seem to also respond to a worry about "looking poor." Think back to Sylvester Stallone's "Rocky Balboa" character, who is a working class man born into an italian immigrant family, and one of whose most famous training scenes from the Rocky movies features him in a jogging suit on his training run up and down city streets and stairs.

By now of course it is probably obvious why my counterpart saw fit to lecture me about my chosen workout clothes. It's bad enough that they were loose-fitting, even worse that they were second-hand, and utterly beyond the pale that I was out in public in them, even for the sensible purpose of exercise. What if someone saw me and assumed that I was poor, and by implication deemed this evidence of poverty among my family and friends? Set out like this it is easy to dismiss this as silly, but of course for my counterpart it didn't feel silly at all. To them it felt threatening, because we are all encouraged to treat poverty as a contagious state that we can bring down on ourselves by merely looking it, or that we should hide at all costs (no pun intended) if we are in it. Alas, would that avoiding and in turn preventing and ending poverty were so simple!

Copyright © C. Osborne 2020
Last Modified: Monday, May 29, 2017 2:03:23