Language Corner

The term ‘shoddy’ used to have a different meaning

March 4, 2019

Imagine that you’re living in the middle of the 19th century, say, around 1862. You describe someone as “shoddy.” What do you mean by that?

1) The person is of subpar quality.

2) The person is pretending to be better than they are.

3) You have an accent and mean “shady.”

Two of the answers would be correct, but the third is not too far-fetched.

If you base your answer on current usage, you probably chose 1), though you would also probably be referring to a thing and not a person. A local district attorney accused a contractor of “a pattern of shoddy and incomplete work.” A deadly fire at a soccer club in Rio de Janeiro highlighted that “Latin America’s largest nation suffers from shoddy infrastructure.” A student newspaper defending the First Amendment called out “shoddy journalism.”

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But in the middle of the 19th century, you could have meant that the person was pretending to be better than they were.

Ready for some etymology?

“Shoddy” as an adjective first showed up in 1862, the Oxford English Dictionary says, to refer to a person “that pretends to a superiority to which he has no just claim; said esp. of those who claim, on the ground of wealth, a social station or a degree of influence to which they are not entitled by character or breeding.” Merriam-Webster’s earliest references is more succinct: “cheaply imitative : vulgarly pretentious.” So that takes care of answer 2).

About 30 years earlier, according to the OED, the noun “shoddy” first appeared as part of a noun phrase, “shoddy-grinder.” That referred to someone employed “in picking and tearing woollen rags, and afterwards manufacturing them, with the addition of new wool,” to make new yarn. The stuff they were making quickly became something called “shoddy,” yarn made from old wool with some new wool, an early form of recycling.

That “shoddy” was, as you might imagine, not of high quality.

Now, think what was happening in the United States around 1862, and imagine how those first “shoddy” nouns and adjectives came to mean “inferior.” As the OED says, “In the U.S. the word seems to have been first used with reference to those who made fortunes by army contracts at the time of the Civil War, it being alleged that the clothing supplied by the contractors consisted largely of shoddy.”

The OED perhaps oversimplifies U.S. usage. In 1864, Henry Morford, a Union Army veteran, wrote a scathing book, The Days of Shoddy: A Novel of the Great Rebellion in 1861. Here’s his description of “shoddy”:

There may be many, even at this day, who do not understand what this substance really is, which has lately given a new popular word to the English language at the same time that it has eternally disgraced one branch of the English family. “Shoddy,” properly speaking, is the short wool carded or worn from the inside of cloth, without fibre or tenacity, and with no capability of wear, and yet easily made into the semblance of more durable goods. The same is now used, however, as applied to cloth, in a more general sense—to signify any description of rotten or improper material.

The novel accused contractors of selling inferior goods to the Union Army, perhaps helped by corrupt government officials. Morford applied the adjective “shoddy” to tents, bullets, horses, food, and statesmanship, among other things. “Shoddy,” he wrote, “has been, from that day, and must be in the dictionaries of all future periods, a synonym for miserable pretence in patriotism—a shadow without a substance.”

There you have the second correct answer, 2).

One synonym for “shoddy” is “shady,” and they might sound alike depending on someone’s accent, so give yourself a point if you chose 3).

There’s another twist to the story: The OED says the that origin of “shoddy” is “obscure,” and notes that it may have been related to a dialectical term for “the smaller stones at a quarry.” If so, it might be a derivation of a British regional term, “shoad” or “shode,” which was “loose fragments of tin, lead, or copper ore mixed with earth, lying on or near the surface and indicating the proximity of a lode.”

By the way, “shoddy” was applied to journalism as early as 1863: The OED has a citation from The Boston Herald in 1863, even before Morford’s novel, though, to be fair, it’s listed under the definition for “vulgarly pretentious,” not “inferior quality.” It calls out “shoddy lawyers, shoddy doctors,..shoddy husbands and shoddy wives, and, worse than all, there are shoddy newspapers whose especial business it is to puff up all the shoddy in the world and endeavor to make the people believe that it is the genuine article.

We emphasized that last phrase, and will continue to emphasize it.

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at the New York Times, where she worked for twenty-five years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.