When we say someone is slim, we usually mean that they are slender or thin, although the word has some other, less common, meanings. English use of the adjective dates to at least 1657,
We shall see, however, that the word may be older. Slim is borrowed from Dutch and comes from the Middle Dutch or Middle Low German slim or slem, where the word meant slanting or crooked. And oddly, English use of the word has always been “gracefully slender,” with a positive connotation. While in Dutch the word has both positive and negative connotation, and in modern German, its counterpart schlimm means bad or wicked.
While the adjective appears in the middle of the seventeenth century, the noun is older. In Thomas Cooper’s 1548 revision of Thomas Elyot’s Latin dictionary, Bibliotheca Eliotae, the word longurio, a dative or ablative form of longurius which means a long pole, is defined as “a longe slymme.” And the 1589 edition of William Warner’s Albions England uses slim as a disparaging term for a person:
Lesse mannerd, and worse gated than this Saturns-Eeue-made Slim, God neuer made.
The English adjective isn’t recorded until George Thornley’s use of the word in his translation of Longus’s Daphnis and Chloe:
He’s small and slim, and so will slip and steal away.
In Dutch, slim means clever, wily, and has a not-altogether positive connotation. This meaning is found in English too, and colors the senses of the earliest uses of the word. Slim in the quote above from Thornley’s translation can be interpreted both as slender or crafty, and Roger L’Estrange’s 1692 version of Aesop’s Fables describes a slender fox, traditionally associated with wiliness, using the word:
A Slim, Thin-Gutted Fox made a Hard Shift to wriggle his Body into a Hen-Roost.
But nowadays, this clever sense of slim is mostly found in South African dialect, which is heavily influenced by the Dutch-based Afrikaans language. John Barrow’s 1899 Travels Into the Interior of South Africa has this sentence which demonstrates the transition from Afrikaans to English:
A man, who in his dealings can cheat his neighbour, is considered as a slim mensch, a clever fellow.
South African English also has the word slimness, meaning craftiness or cunning. Most recent uses of the “clever” sense by non-South Africans are re-borrowings from South African English, and not a continuation of the seventeenth century sense.
The verb to slim, meaning to reduce in size, is actually quite recent, with general usage only dating to 1963.
There is also an obsolete noun slim, meaning a lazy, worthless, despicable person. The noun appears in English before the adjective, dating to 1548, but is apparently a development in English, since the noun doesn’t exist in Dutch. This indicates that the adjective slim was probably in English slang or dialectal use for a long time before being written down. Unfortunately, the chances that we will ever get to the bottom of this anomaly are pretty slim.
“slim, adj.,” “slim, n.,” “slim, v.” Oxford English Dictionary, second edition, 1989.
“slim, adj.,” Dictionary of South African English, Oxford University Press, 1996.
Liberman, Anatoly, Word Origins and How We Know Them, Oxford University Press, 2005, 199.
Copyright 1997-2015, by David Wilton