Trend Watch

Sessions Vows to Defend Against 'Scurrilous and False Allegations'

Containing obscenities, abuse, or slander

Scurrilous was among our top lookups on June 13th, 2017, after Attorney General Jeff Sessions used the word while providing testimony at a Senate hearing.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions heatedly denied on Tuesday that he had any undisclosed meeting with the Russian ambassador or conversations with Russian officials about the U.S. elections. He vowed to defend his honor "against scurrilous and false allegations.”
—Eric Tucker and Erica Werner, Minneapolis Star-Tribune, 13 Jun. 2017

Scurrilous may mean “using or given to coarse language,” “containing obscenities, abuse, or slander,” or may be used to indicate a thing that is “vulgar and evil.” Sessions appears to have intended the second of these three possibilities.

The word has been in use in English since the early 16th century, and in its earliest use, was used to refer to coarse language (Samuel Johnson memorably defined the word in the first edition of his dictionary as “Grossly opprobrious; using such language as only the license of a buffoon can warrant; loudly jocular”).

We are sad to report that the related verb, scurrilize, has fallen from general use. It may still be found only in historical dictionaries such as the Oxford English Dictionary (which defines it as “to attack with scurrility, speak scurrilously of”).

Noo man, noo man can lyue chaaste nor clene, as longe as he hath a lecherous eye, eares gyuen to here euery lyght scurrilous taale, wanton wordes prouokynge to synne. Thou canst not possyblye lyue chaast as longe as thou hast pleasure to be conversant with women….
—John Longland, A Sermonde Made Before the Kynge, 1538

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