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Warren Clements: Word Play

Splashing in the slush of the pork barrel Add to ...

Why is there slush in a slush fund?

In her final report as Canada's auditor-general, Sheila Fraser criticized the way $50-million was spent in the riding of Treasury Board President Tony Clement. Parliament had earmarked the money for the Border Infrastructure Fund. Somehow, the money went to 32 projects in Clement's Ontario riding of Parry Sound-Muskoka, with - said interim Auditor-General John Wiersema - "no paper trail behind the selection of the 32 projects."

NDP MP Charlie Angus called the program a "slush fund for pork-barrel projects." Interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae said, "Of course it's a slush fund. That's exactly what it is."

A slush fund is a negative description of a contingency fund. It suggests favouritism and political rewards. But again, why slush?

It has nothing to do with the partly melted ice and snow of winter, even though that was slush's meaning when the word entered English in the 1600s. "This speedy thowe caused a wonderfull slush," farmer Henry Best wrote in 1642, using a Middle English spelling of thaw. Nor does it relate to the meaning, common from the late 1700s, of watery mud.

Rather, it concerns the grease or fat left over after a ship's cook has prepared salt pork or beef for the crew. The Oxford English Dictionary found its first citation in 1756, in The Gentleman's Magazine in Britain. "He ... used much slush (the rancid fat of pork) among his victuals," the magazine said.

William Thompson, who wrote a treatise in 1757 on "the corrupt practices of victualling the Royal Navy," commiserated with "Tars whose Stomachs are not very squeamish, and who can bear to paddle their Fingers in stinking Slush." (Tar, a slang word for sailor, was short for Jack Tar, which was short for tarpaulin. Evidently many British sailors in the 1700s wore hats and overalls made of tarpaulin cloth.)

Okay, you say. We get the picture. Slush is horrible. Why, then, would anyone wish to get near a slush fund, let alone ladle out great portions?

Even surplus fat has a value when rendered as tallow or lard. Whether the cook skimmed the fat as he cooked the meat or whether the men scraped it from the barrels in which the meat was stored, the sailors would carry the slush into port and sell it to makers of lamp oil, candles, soap and the like. The ship would use the proceeds - the slush fund - for the benefit of the crew.

By the mid-1800s, the phrase was being used without prejudice to describe political contingency funds. "We have had this 'slush-fund' since 1866," said an 1874 entry in the U.S. Congressional Record. William Safire quoted a negative use in 1924 by comedian Will Rogers: "If I was running for office I would rather have two friends in the counting room than a Republican slush fund behind me."

No one knows exactly how slush entered the language. There were similar words in early Danish ( slus, for sleet) and Norwegian ( slusk, for sloppy weather), but if slush owed its life to those terms, it would have entered English long before the 1600s.

One school of thought is that slush is imitative; the word echoes the sound the feet make as they slog through slush. After all, the word squelch was imitative (in use by 1620), as was splash (in use by 1699). To be precise, splash came from plash, which had been around since the early 1500s, but plash meant the same thing and it too was imitative.

Another school of thought is that slush is related to sludge (also slutch), which entered English in the 1600s as a synonym for mud. In other words, whenever a glass is raised to projects realized through a slush fund, the appropriate toast must be: "Here's mud in your eye." And if the project is particularly lush - rich, luxurious - the boast of "It's lush!" can surely be reduced to "S'lush."

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