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Scumble and scumball

Visitors to the JMW Turner exhibition at the National Gallery of Australia may come across scumble, a curious word from the C19 art world.  It refers to the technique of applying a thin coating over lighter paint colours, so they shine through as if through mist or clouds. The verb scumble is a C18 derivative of scum, with the frequentative suffix –le (also found in crumble, sparkle etc.) plus an intrusive b. As an artistic term, scumble escapes the generally pejorative sense of scum (as in scum of the earth), and could be used figuratively by writers of poetic prose, witness “frequent clouds now scumbled the sky” (1905), and “a golden scumble of October haze” (1884), cited in the Oxford English Dictionary online. The similar-sounding scumball also makes affirmative use of scum, to refer to an annual charity car rally begun in 2006 under the name “Scumball 3000”. The participants drive vehicles that cost no more than £500 ($850) to mystery destinations in Europe. The name was, however, challenged by the organisers of Gumball 3000, another British motoring event used to promote expensive sports cars.  The Scumball rally has since been rebadged the Scumrun, and trademarked with its own logo.  But scumball lives on as a generic term for the alternative car rally, putting positive vibes back into the word.

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