Wednesday, March 18, 2009


The amateurs among us bought green beer yesterday and held on to their leprechaun hats as they tipped back to swallow the suds. If you’re an American of a certain age, you’ll remember that suds was a slang term for beer, no doubt because of the foam on top. If you drank too much, 18th century writers would have said that you are in the suds.

The Oxford English Dictionary places the label “of uncertain etymology” on suds, but then surmises that it might have come from a German or Dutch word meaning a marsh or bog. An early meaning was floodwater, especially if mixed with sand or mud.

Another early meaning was dregs, filth, or muck. That developed into a figurative use. We still use the phrase the dregs of society, which once could have been the suds of society. Nicholas Udall’s translation of the sayings of Erasmus had this: “He had so infected the clere fountaine of Goddes woorde with the suddes of humain tradicions.”

We’re familiar with the suds that form when washing dishes or clothes or the family pet. Generally, we call them soapsuds. Suds was also used by barbers to name the lather spread on whiskers before shaving.

To be in the suds or to be left in the suds was an old slang term pointing to difficulty, embarrassment, or confusion; it could also refer to disgrace. Mariners used to refer to the foam churned up by a wounded whale as suds.

SIDEBAR: Suds in the Bucket

Now available from McFarland & Co.: Word Parts Dictionary, 2nd edition

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