Words come into fashion and fade into obscurity all the time in our wonderful language, some shining in the firmament longer than others. While its ability to absorb like a sponge and to loosen its grammatical structure are strengths of the language, English as she is spoken now has lost of its richness and inventiveness. Take invectives. We all use a few choice words from time to time, with the emphasis on few, but our vocabulary is not as rich or as inventive as it once was.
I came across slubberdegullion when I was searching through Samuel Butler’s 17th century mock-heroic satire on Puritanism, Hudibras. He wrote ”Quoth she, though thou has’t deserved/ base slubberdegullion, to be serv’d/ as thou did’st vow to deal with me/ if thou had’st got the victory”. Dr Samuel Johnson included it in his dictionary, defining it as a noun to describe “a paltry, dirty, sorry wretch”. The great doctor could not hazrd a guess as to its origin, placing it as an example of the rich argot of the canting classes.
It appeared in an alternative spelling, slabberdegullion, in Sir Thomas Urquhart’s 1653 translation of Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel. Some etymologists think that slubber may owe its origins to the Dutch and Low German verb, slubbern, which meant to gobble. Its similarity to the English slobber is almost too close to resist. As for the second part of the word, it is anybody’s guess. Some think that it might be derived from cullion which meant testicle and shares the same root as the French couillon and the Spanish cojones. Alternatively, it may just come from the Scots dialect word gullion which means a quagmire or pool of mud.
Wherever it came from, it was never widely used and now is languishing in obscurity. It is a shame as it is a colourful way to describe a slovenly person.