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The Independent Online

'OH WE DO like to be beside the sleaze side' read a headline over Peter Mackay's column in the London Evening Standard. Mr Mackay was in Bournemouth, where conference-goers were trying to forget the allegations of 'sleaze' surrounding Mark Thatcher and that arms deal. The pun was hardly excusable, but the word itself has become an essential item in the political vocabulary.

is a back-formation - logic suggests that sleazy must have come from sleaze, but it was the other way round. Sleasy, a pleasing word, sounds as though it might have been invented by Lewis Carroll along with his mome raths and slithy toves, his chortle and his beamish boy. ('All sleazy were the borogroves.') But it was already around some 200 years before the Jabberwock, and has come on wonderfully since, getting better with the centuries. Originally it meant 'flimsy', and was used of cloth that wore badly. No one is sure where it came from, though Dr Johnson, guessing, thought it might be of the same family as sleave, or floss-silk.

Anyway, it was obviously a strong candidate for metaphor, and in no time people were talking about sleazy arguments and sleazy opinions. That was back in the 17th century. It wasn't until we were well into this one that it really took off, and began to be applied to anything or anyone that was sordid or shabby. By now it had lost its associations with thinness; a fat drunkard was a model of sleaziness.

Back-formations are seldom as happy as this one. (Wodehouse's gruntled is a fine example.) You can't make seed and steam from seedy and steamy. But sleaze is a natural. Though it had already been a verb, meaning to come apart, in the 18th century, it really arrived in the 1970s; and it is only in the past few years that it has clearly signalled sexual or financial depravity in high places. It could be here to stay.