In the course of conversation my wife happened to use the word “seamy,” and it suddenly occurred to me to wonder why the word means what it does. There’s no obvious connection between sleaze and seams. Well, it turns out this is one word that really does derive from Shakespeare (most words allegedly coined by the Big Shake are simply words for which he happens to provide the first citation in the OED); he has Emilia say (in Othello, Act IV Scene 2):
“O, fie upon them! Some such squire he was
That turn’d your wit the seamy side without,
And made you to suspect me with the Moor.”
Hence the OED’s definition reads: “Having a seam or suture; characterized by seams. seamy side, lit. the under side of a garment, etc. on which the rough edges of the seams are visible; fig. [after Shakes.] the worst, most degraded or the roughest side (of life, character, etc.).” It was still an allusion rather than a cliche in the mid-19th century:
1859 Sat. Rev. 2 Apr. 403/1 He appreciated to a considerable extent, what we may perhaps venture to call the seamy side of human affairs.
But by the end of the century it was taken for granted:
1899 H. A. Dobson Paladin of Philanthropy vi. 146 The knowledge of the seamy side of letters.


  1. Completelt irrelevant question, but I’m unduly bothered by it and you’re The Man To Ask.
    Do you have any idea what language this might be?
    A few of the words look up as Czech on Google, but I find it impossible to believe that the whole thing is in any Slavic language.
    Is this gibberish? Or what?

  2. It’s a search-engine trap: page after page of meaningless data ( works) filled with meaningless cross-links.

    The hope is that programs designed to trawl through Web sites to find email addresses to spam will get stuck here, I think.

  3. Thanks for that. I naively (and wrongly) believed that it was a cognate of German sämig. This adjective denotes the viscous quality of a sauce after thickening, and appears to derive from the (obsolete) noun Seim, meaning a viscous, slimy juice. There doesn’t even seem to be much of a link between slime and sleazy either. I have been making up my own private etymologies [studiously avoiding the other e-word here] from figuratively deriving seamy and sleazy from slime.

  4. Well, I never knew about “seamy” either, and, as someone who has sewn a lot, found this fascinating. In modern life most seams in clothing are machine-finished and fairly smooth even on the wrong side – I sometimes have to tell my dear husband that his knit shirt is inside out! But in Shakespeare’s day the heavy clothing worn by many of theater attendees would have been wool or thick cotton sewn by hand, and the insides would have been extremely rough, thick, scratchy and unsightly. The word makes even more sense when you think how literally unpleasant the seamy side would have been then.

  5. Shakespeare’s use of “seamy” in this passage of Othello is also a pun — appearance (seeming) and reality is a major theme of the play.

  6. Of course, I can’t resist linking this classic bit of fractured English:
    May pre house the seamy side volitation!

  7. [scuzzy spam deleted]

  8. Ah, the seamy side of the internet.

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