Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Word of the day: smellum

[Henry, November 12, 2013.]

I startled slightly when I saw today’s Henry. This strip is keeping it old-school indeed.

Smellum appears in neither the Oxford English Dictionary nor Webster’s Third. Nor does it appear in the one slang dictionary in my possession (the 1975 edition of the Dictionary of American Slang). I know the word from the Coen brothers’ Depression-era film O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), in which it’s spoken by pomade devotee Ulysses Everett McGill:

“As soon as we get ourselves cleaned up and we get a little smellum in our hair, why, we’re gonna feel a hundred percent better about ourselves and about life in general.”
A source from Google Books has smellum as a bit of pidgin English:

[Charles Godfrey Leland, Pidgin-English Sing-Song; or, Songs and Stories in the China-English Dialect (London: Trübner, 1876). The sample sentence means “Bring me that perfume.”]

That’s the earliest source I can find. And the scholarly databases I’ve checked have no smellum. Which stinks, I know.

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