What’s the origin of the word ‘scumbag?’

The word “scum” has an origin that goes all the way back to the 14th Century. Specifically, there was the word “schume” that was defined as froth or foam; this word has a Dutch origin. There was also the word “escume” with a French origin that has the same meaning as schume. For approximately 200 years, this word evolved and eventually took on the definition “a thick layer on top of liquid.” As the term continued to evolve, it was defined as “a layer of dirt,” and then as “dirt.”

Although the word scum was not originally an insult, the word “scumbag” is clearly intended to be derogatory. This started in about 1586 when the term “scum of Africa” was used in a play called Tamburlaine by Christopher Marlowe. This was the first known incident of using scum to reference an actual person or thing negatively. Subsequently, the term was increasingly used for that purpose. After this happened, the definition of the word scum begin to evolve again.

The word scum later took on a slightly different definition and was referred to as worthless pieces that rise to the surface during the process in which metal is purified. This use of the word scum is referenced in a book titled Natural and Moral History of the Indies by José de Acosta. However, the term scumbag still had not been used. That didn’t happen until about 1812 when Rees’s Encyclopedia was developed.

Rees’s Encyclopedia was a project that involved combining dozens of encyclopedia volumes. Contained in the pages of this encyclopedia was the word scumbag and it referenced the process of refining sugar using a straining bag. The word was used to explain the froth or foam that was left behind when a bag was used during the straining process. The process also involved the use of a scum-board that was aptly named because it was used for the purpose of pressing down on the scum.

There are instances in which the word scumbag was also used to describe a condom. This likely first occurred around 1939 in the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, but that has not been confirmed as other sources believe use of the word scumbag to describe a condom occurred decades later. One source that believes it was used at a later date for this purpose is the Oxford English Dictionary, which believes it didn’t happen until around 1967. It was at this time that the word scum was used to mean semen.

After the late 1960s, the word scumbag was used quite frequently when referring to semen in a condom. In fact, it was pushed into popular culture by musical artists. There was even a song produced called “Scumbag” in about 1971. This song was recorded by John Lennon, Frank Zappa and Yoko Ono. It may have very well been this song that solidified use of scumbag to mean a person who is despicable, which remains the way in which it’s used today.