Oh, this is a word to make a person squirrelly: the sound of the scurrying, lustful claws of something not so much scary as carelessly scandalous, curious for secrets and ludicrously lurid excoriations. What things do we call scurrilous? Attacks, charges, remarks, allegations, rumours, all in a scurrilous campaign of careless whispers. The verbal scrawls of such shady commentary are sucrose to craven ears, currying favour with the callous and giving succour to the discourteous.
What is scurrilous? The gross or obscene, yes, and typically the defamatory. That which makes the tongue coil and the lips curl. What is scurrilous is scandalous, or faux-scandalous – rumours about certain personages, especially political ones. If someone accuses you of something particular seedy, whether the accusation is true or not you are expected to characterize it as scurrilous.
But scurrilous can also be simply vulgar, juicy, delectably louche. Vile, darlings, simply vile, what was that again? Such scurrilous murmurings, oh, do say them closer to my ear so I don’t miss any. Walter Scott and Nathaniel Hawthorne both used scurrilous to characterize jesting. Lewd, bawdy, uncouth, scurrilous jesting. A furtive upskirt kind of turn.
Which leads us more towards the origin of this word. Scurrilous comes from scurrile, meaning about the same thing; it came, via French, from Latin scurrilis, which came from scurra, ‘buffoon’. So to be scurrilous was first to be buffoonish, ludicrous, and in particular coarse or indecent. Which means it hasn’t scurried far from its source.
Which is fitting. When you say “scurrilous,” your tongue barely curls as it rolls across your palate, making a soft hiss to start, then catching at the back and rolling to front again for a soft press and a final hiss. It’s like a gentle caressing motion, almost. But perhaps that’s not quite what it is really… Let me tell you what I heard…