curd / crud / cruddy

Curd is the coagulated substance found in many milk products, formed either naturally or by the addition of rennet. Crud is a modern American slang term for filth. The two may be related, but their connection is a bit mysterious and lost to the ages.

The ultimate origin of curd is unknown. It has no cognates in the Romance or other Germanic languages. If it appeared in Old English, it doesn’t survive in any of the extant manuscripts from before the Norman Conquest. Cruth, gruth, and groth appear in Irish and Scots Gaelic, but it’s unknown if these Celtic words are related to the English one. English may have acquired curd from the Celtic, or the Celtic words may have been borrowed from English.

One thing we know is that curd was originally spelled crud. The earliest uses of the word in Middle English are spelled crud, as in this line from Piers Plowman A, written c. 1362:

Twey grene cheeses, and a fewe cruddes and crayme.
(Two green cheese, and a few curds and cream.)

The < ru > combination began to metathesize to < ur > starting in the fifteenth century, and the old spelling survived only in dialectal use.

As for the modern crud and cruddy, it appears the adjective is older. It appears in Allan Pinkerton’s 1877 The Molly Maguires and the Detectives:

Sure an’ you needn’t take me for a gomersal, cruddy from the bogs! [gomersal is probably gomerel, “a fool"]

And:

An’ is it yourself that ye are, or some cruddy gorsoon, right from the auld sod? [gorsoon is probably gossoon, Anglo-Irish for “boy"]

Pinkerton is recording the speech of the Irish-American coal miners, so cruddy would appear to be Anglo-Irish and the meaning is simply “dirty, muddy,” although the word does not appear to be Celtic in origin. It could be a dialectal survival of the old crud spelling of Middle English.

Then starting in the 1920s, the word began to appear in American slang. Hemingway in his 1925 In Our Time has:

That son of a crutting brakeman.

Hemingway was fond of the crut variant of crud. It appears a number of times in his works.

Crud, meaning “a despicable person,” appears in 1930. The journal American Speech records crud being used at Stanford University in 1932 to refer to disease or illness. And in the 1940s it blossoms into the varied uses that we know and love today.

So it appears that our modern crud may be from a dialectal Anglo-Irish survival of the original spelling and pronunciation of curd, with a significant shift in meaning along the way. Or perhaps not.


Works cited:

“crud, n.” “crut. n.3” “curd, n.” “gomerel, n.”, and “gossoon, n.” The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd Edition. 1989. Web.

“crud, n.” “cruddy, adj.” “crut, n.” The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang. J. E. Lighter, editor. New York: Random House. 1994. Print.

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