“An honest man must lose so many occasions of getting, that the world will hardly allow him the character of an able one.”
George Savile, Marquis of Halifax, Moral Thoughts and Reflections (c. 1650)
Although it is true that a good man cannot prosper in a sleazy world, it is false to infer that a man is good because he has in that same condition failed to prosper. Many who bleat against knavery in high places are themselves just paltry, incompetent, and envious knaves.
A knave is a scoundrel in disguise. There are many dishonorable sleights and stratagems to which a knave will stoop, but what makes him especially a knave is that he works in the shadows and behind a false face. In the Middle Ages, a knave was a young male menial—its closest verbal relation being the German word knabe, or boy—and knavery was therefore the name honorable men gave to the furtive mischief of these skulking stooges.
A knave is a plotter, a pimp, a whisperer, a whore, a rat. And these are, indeed, the stepping stones on which knaves ascend to the upper reaches of a sleazy world.
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The word sleazy was until very recently the name of a cheap, thin, loose-woven cloth. It is said that the word originally denoted cloth of this character woven in Silesia, and such sleazy cloth, whether it was from Silesia or not, was used to make the parts of inexpensive garments that did not show. Trouser pockets, for instance, were often made of sleazy. The sleaziness of such cloth was often hidden by starching it heavily, but the starch would wash out and the sleazy cloth would go limp and tear. Sleazy cloth therefore would not keep its shape.
Cheap thin paper was also called sleazy by analogy with the cloth. For instance, in Melville’s Pierre (1852), the hero finds an old, discarded pamphlet that he describes as, “printed with blurred ink upon mean, sleazy paper,” and he proceeds to pore over “this miserable, sleazy paper-rag.”
The word sleazy did not acquire its modern meaning of sordid until after the Second World War, perhaps because the age demanded a word to describe a world that had become a great deal sleazier. (By a curious coincidence, the word sordid also originally referred to a cloth, in this case a cloth so stiff with filth that it was the very opposite of sleazy.) I have not found conclusive proof, but I suspect the lewd connotation of the word sleazy may come from the fact that early girlie magazines were printed on sleazy paper. In any case, the word we know as sleazy slouched into the language around 1950, along with beatniks, reefer, and bebop jazz.
This is from a novel published in 1953.
“Ours is the sleazy-joint, bebop-band, hep-to-heroin age.”*
This from a newspaper article published in 1966.
“London strippers today stepped out of their clothes with official blessing from the city fathers after 14 years of private peeling. The Greater London council voted last night to legalize ‘the spectator sport of sex’ which since 1952 has been confined to 17 sleazy strip tease clubs in Soho.**
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Politics is the paradise of knaves, so it is not surprising that the modern adjectival form of sleazy quickly attached itself to the noun politician. An early and illustrative example appeared in the 1963 book The Politician, by John Birch Society founder Robert Welch. As Welch used it, a sleazy politician is an unprincipled office-seeker who can hold his shape no better than sleazy cloth. A sleazy politician does whatever it takes, preferably behind closed doors, and is consequently a knave.
In the passage where Welch uses the phrase “sleazy politician,” he suggests another type of politician, another type knave, and another type of sleaze.
“In 1952 Dwight Eisenhower suddenly announced that he was a Republican. And his campaign manager, Henry Cabot Lodge, rounded out the pretense by declaring that ‘Ike’ had been a lifelong Republican. In plain language, both statements appear to have been calculated and deliberate falsehoods, made for the purpose of stealing the Republican nomination from Robert Taft. Lodge was at the best a Sleazy politician . . . looking for a political victory.
But Eisenhower and his more intimate backers had much more far-reaching purposes in mind. One of them was to destroy the Republican Party as an organizational crystallizer of the anti-socialist and anti-Communist strength in the United States. And their progress in that direction, since Eisenhower usurped control of the party, has been steady, determined, and increasingly successful.”***
What Welch describes is a political party tailored after the fashion of a cheap suit, all appealing fabric where exposed to the public eye, and nothing but sleazy in all places that lurk out of view.
*) Joachim Joesten, Dope, Inc. (New York: Avon Publications, 1953), p. 54.
**) Chicago Tribune (Sep. 15, 1966)
***) Robert Welch, The Politician (Belmont, Mass.: Belmont Pub. Co., 1963), pp. 109-110