Prompted by who knows what passing vagary of thought, I said to my wife “I always liked that good old insult crumb — people don’t say ‘You crumb!’ to each other any more, and it’s too bad. I wonder when it went out of fashion?” She said it reminded her of another antiquated insult, louse. I decided (inevitably) to look it up, and imagine my surprise when Green informed me that crumb originally meant ‘louse’ (from “the diminutive size of the insects, the infestation of the human being”)! Here are some early cites for that sense:

1848 [Aus] Bell’s Life in Sydney 26 Feb. 1/4: So I gets cummeser, cos of them are crums you no’s.
1863 [US] O.W. Norton Army Letters (1903) 175: Fortunately, I am not troubled with the ‘crumbs’ now [DA].
1898 [US] Scribner’s Mag. XXIII 440/1: And just then I felt something crawling on my neck. It was a crumb [DA].
1910 [US] ‘Ship Out’ in Lingenfelter et al. Songs of the Amer. West (1968) 519: The bunks they are plumb full / Of crums and fleas.

Here are some cites for “2. a filthy person, an objectionable, worthless or insignificant person”:

1914 [US] G.D. Chase ‘Navy Sl.’ in DN [Dialect Notes] IV: ii 150: crumb, n. A dirty sailor.
1915 [US] M.G. Hayden ‘Terms Of Disparagement’ in DN IV:iii 198: crumb, an insignificant person.
1925 [UK] Wodehouse Carry on, Jeeves 168: This old crumb so generally disliked among the better element of the community.
1955 [US] B. Schulberg On the Waterfront (1964) 13: Once in a while […] some crumb forced a meeting of the local.
1962 [US] P. Highsmith Cry of the Owl (1968) 257: You’re such a heel, you wouldn’t know! You’ve wrecked my life, you crumb.
1964 [Aus] ‘Charles Barrett’ Address: Kings Cross 31: To start with that crumb, Greg, didn’t have a car.
2000 [US] B. Wiprud Sleep with the Fishes 74: That crum you just crushed – yeah, his name is Jimmy.

And here are the cites for “3. a cruel, vicious person” (though how you distinguish this sense from 2 is beyond me):

1944 [US] J. Archibald ‘Defective Bureau’ in Popular Detective 🌐 ‘Desertin’ your wife, you dirty crumb!’ the customer yelped.
2001 [US] J. Stahl Plainclothes Naked (2002) 251: Doubtless the crumb who’d mocked him […] was lolling around some swanky office, cackling […] about the rube down in Hicksville, Pennsylvania.

(I don’t know what that 🌐 is doing in the 1944 entry; it’s not on the Abbreviations or How to Use pages.)


  1. A louse was also a cootie.
    WWI era.

  2. crummy in NYT May 24
    “And I know that some other method should have been found to express the couple’s unhappiness with their neighbor’s possibly crummy conduct.”

    A Federal Judge Wonders: How Could Alito Have Been So Foolish?
    by Michael Ponsor

  3. Yeah, “crummy” seems still to be in use.

  4. cuchuflete says

    Did someone say, “Alito”? When I was a small boy, in the early 1950s, a strong insult was

    crumbum n.
    also crumb-bum, crumbun
    [crum n. (2) + bum n.3 (3)]
    (orig. US) a filthy, disgusting, worthless person.

    1944 [US] E. Wilson 3 Oct. [synd. col.] [Toots] Shor, the plump ex-bouncer, famous for calling customers ‘crumbums’ .
    1946 [US] H.A. Smith Rhubarb 137: ‘That crumb bum!’ he said. ‘Him manager!’.
    1951 [US] J.D. Salinger Catcher in the Rye (1958) 103: So long, crumb-bum.
    1958 [US] H. Ellison Web of the City (1983) 52: His old man . . . That crumbum wouldn’t have to worry.


  5. J.W. Brewer says

    America’s most prominent living Crumb probably attracts a fair mix of praise and pejoratives?

  6. David Eddyshaw says

    “Nit”, at least, is still around in the UK. I don’t recall hearing it on the lips of an American, but that may just reflect the limitations of my social circle.

    It implies stupidity rather than lousiness, however. Perhaps the homophony is mere coincidence.

    “Steaming nit” was still current in my youth. I once attempted to revive it, in collaboration with the other member of the Provisional BMA (Luigi the Hitman.) Alas, we failed.

  7. > (I don’t know what that 🌐 is doing in the 1944 entry; it’s not on the Abbreviations or How to Use pages.)

    If I had to guess I’d say web-only.

  8. “Nit”, at least, is still around in the UK. I don’t recall hearing it on the lips of an American

    I don’t either; in fact, I’m aware of it only in the term “nitpick.”

  9. J.W. Brewer says

    AmEng certainly retains the pejorative “nitwit,” although The Authorities seem to be in disagreement about how likely it is that that’s the same “nit” rather than a homophone from another etymological source.

  10. PlasticPaddy says

    @hat, Frans
    You can actually copy the emoji and paste it in to the search field in the Green’s online search. I think it only goes to entries without a flag in front, indicating to me they don’t have a nationality for the author/publisher, so source is presumably internet, as Frans says.

  11. J.W. Brewer says

    For the adjective, I would use “crummy” as a pejorative but save “crumby” as a description-of-literal-crumbs (similar to “crumbly” but more restricted to baked goods?). But this orthographic distinction has not always been present. I remember the first-person narrator of _The Catcher In the Rye_ as a heavy user of “crummy” – to the point of it being an annoying tic – but in fact Salinger apparently spelled it “crumby” in that context, with my memory having apparently conformed the author’s actual usage to my own.

  12. ktschwarz says

    PlasticPaddy, the 1944 quotation that hat was asking about has a flag in front of it, as does the other entry with the 🌐 symbol on the crumb page.

  13. @PlasticPaddy I meant web-only slightly differently: as recent additions since 2010 that haven’t appeared on paper yet.

  14. ktschwarz says

    The two quotations marked 🌐 on the crumb page are not new additions; both were already in the 2010 hardcopy, where they were marked “[Internet]”. From the How to Use page for the print version: “There is always either a page reference or similar (e.g. line, chapter, act, scene etc.) or something in square brackets to denote a non-printed format (e.g. [lyrics] or [Internet]).” For the web edition, he evidently converted [lyrics] to 🎵, as well as [Internet] to 🌐.

    As for why he marked a 1944 magazine with 🌐, maybe it’s a mistake, or maybe he consulted it via or something like that, instead of directly on paper?

  15. Per unreliable internet sources, the surname Crumb < Crum < McCrum < Ulster Irish Mac Cruim ‘son of the cripple’ < crom ‘bent, twisted’ (cognate with German krumm).
    That’s a pretty lousy name, too.

  16. David Eddyshaw says

    Well, “Campbell” is “crooked mouth.”

    (I see that WP says that the Campbells claim descent from the Brythons of Strathclyde. Social climbers … and they massacred my kinsmen at Glencoe. I see too that the loathsome Thomas Babington Macaulay whitewashed the govenment’s role in the event as part of his narrative of inevitable Whiggy progress. How like him …)

  17. Nits are the eggs of head lice. They can be removed by picking, combing or shampooing with OTC or prescription products.

  18. David Eddyshaw says

    Very true.

  19. jack morava says

    I seem to recall a nearby thread here in which a derogatory Siberian-language term for earlier migrants to North America described them as louse-ridden, but I may have hallucinated it. Perhaps this is a good place to note that louse genomics indicates that the systematic wearing of clothing may have started in Africa somewhere between 83 – 170 KYears ago, fans of Quest for Fire please note…

  20. ktschwarz says
  21. jack morava says

    @ ktschwarz,

    thanks, it was hiding in plain sight…

  22. Kate Bunting says

    I always assumed that ‘nit’ as an insult was short for ‘nitwit’ (someone with no more brains than a louse egg). I’m familiar with the adjective ‘crummy’ but don’t remember hearing anyone called a ‘crumb’.

  23. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    “Nit”, at least, is still around in the UK.

    In my youth, “I don”t want to catch your nits” was a common response to a request to borrow someone’s comb. At that time I had no idea what a nit was, and thought it was synonymous with dandruff. I was never at a school where nits were a problem.

  24. Stu Clayton says

    Nits are not a problem of schools, and they are not necessarily a problem of their catchments. Sometimes there are small waves of lousiness brought back by children from a camping trip, to no matter how fancy a school. These waves are quickly brought under control.

  25. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    I have long thought that “nitwit” came from Dutch “niet weet” (don’t know). However, that may just be a folk etymology, because the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary provides no support for it.

  26. J.W. Brewer says

    The etymology given of “Crumb” as a surname back to Mac Cruim naturally made me wonder how bearers of that name compared to David E.’s Glencoe MacDonald kin in the Celtic-fringe tradition of massacring and/or being massacred. I learn from the internet that back in 1982 an 11-year-old boy named Alan McCrum was killed by an IRA car bomb in Banbridge, Co. Down. But surely Ulster has been a violent place back to the time of Cu Chulainn and before, so there no doubt is more there.

  27. ktschwarz says

    I always assumed that ‘nit’ as an insult was short for ‘nitwit’ (someone with no more brains than a louse egg).

    Historically, it’s the other way round: nit as an insult is recorded all the way back to Shakespeare, while nitwit has only been found since the early 20th century, originally in the US. As JWB said, the nit of nitwit is uncertain and disputed, with the OED leaning toward ‘louse egg’, but AHD and others toward German dialectal (or Dutch? Yiddish?) nit ‘not’, which is also recorded as an interjection in the US in the late 1800s/early 1900s.

  28. David Marjanović says

    I was never at a school where nits were a problem.

    Amazing. In my experience every child gets them once.

    (Same word in German – Nissen.)

  29. Our experiences overlap wrt this point.

  30. I’m familiar with the adjective ‘crummy’ but don’t remember hearing anyone called a ‘crumb’.


  31. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    They actually removed the “pillow corner” in our home room to stop one infestation which no amount of combing and insecticides would abate. (I think the stuff they used on lice back then was not as harmless to humans as the current stuff [a siloxane to stop exudation], which is claimed to be absorbed in treatment plants).

  32. Head lice have been uncommon in America at least since I was a kid, mostly due, I suppose, to rigorous quarantining. If a child is found with them, they are not allowed in school until they have been treated and certified louse and nit free for at least three days. So most kids never get them, although my daughter somehow did in middle school. While nobody else in the household was shown to have an infestation, we all did the isolation, treatment with greasy medicated shampoo, and combing and re-combing to get any nits out. Besides the direct medical value, it made Lillian feel less gross if all five of us were going through the same treatment routine. Before we settled on how to handle treatment, there was a franchise near campus of Pediatric Haircare Solutions, where we took her to get an informed opinion and buy the needed products. However, we demurred on paying for their special patented heat treatment, which killed the lice and nits by baking them, but cost five times as much as treating the whole family the usual way.

    Separately, I started reading The Elixir of Life,* a horror novel by Arthur Ransome (his only full-length adult novel, I think). I was actually somewhat surprised that I had never read it before, given that I have read a lot of classic British fantasy from the early twentieth century, including works by people from Ransome’s circle, including of course his childhood friend E. R. Eddison. The relevance to this thread is that, at one point, the main character’s uncle describes his London lawyer as

    a lousy, unwholesome fellow, but
    honest, which is unusual.

    It seemed quite peculiar to describe a solicitor as “lousy” but nonetheless honest, until I realized that “lousy” was meant as a physical, not moral description. I then immediately realized that the difference in meaning also corresponded to a difference in pronunciation. When using lousy to mean “louse-like” or “louse-infested,” rather than as a general term of disapprobation, I would pronounce it with an unvoiced /s/, rather than the more usual /z/.

    * My friend Scott opined at lunch on Friday that he did not care for horror fiction that relied too much on dramatic irony, and to an extent I agree. (We were in agreement that a big part of what makes At the Mountains of Madness Lovecraft’s greatest work is that the climactic horror is genuinely a surprise to the first-time reader, for exactly the same reason it is a surprise to the protagonists.) As I started The Elixir of Life on Monday, I could see that Scott would not like it, as it does not even try to hide from the reader what is actually going on. The first big spoiler is right there in the title! I wonder now whether the unsubtlety of the foreshadowing in The Elixir of Life has anything to do with the fact that Ransome mostly wrote novels for children.

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