When describing lake water, the words scummy and murky convey very different images, even though they’re synonyms. I had a preconceived notion of the word murky. I believed it portrayed water as dark, cloudy, and difficult to see through. I understood the word scummy to mean water that has a layer of algae on top of it, making it unpleasant to swim in or to look at.
Murky, as defined by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, has three definitions:
1: characterized by a heavy dimness or obscurity caused by or like that caused by overhanging fog or smoke; the murky bottom of the lake
2: characterized by thickness and heaviness of air; foggy, misty; rain poured down from murky skies
3: darkly vague or obscure; murky official rhetoric; he offered a murky explanation
I had only ever previously associated the word murky with water, so this was a pleasant surprise. I use what I know when I write, so learning more about words I thought I already knew is refreshing, and it keeps my ego in check.
Scummy, on the other hand, is an adjective for something covered in scum. The dictionary definition of scum is as follows:
1a: extraneous matter or impurities risen to or formed on the surface of a liquid often as a foul filmy covering
1b: the scoria of metals in a molten state
1c: a slimy film on a solid or gelatinous object
2b: a low, vile, or worthless person or group of people
I don’t use the word scummy much in my writing because it grosses me out a little bit. It sounds slimy and like an unpleasant shade and texture of green on the surface of a pond.
Curiosity propelled me to use the thesaurus to search for synonyms of murky and scummy. I discovered caliginous (misty or dark) and stygian (relating to the River Styx, or extremely dark and foreboding) to be interesting synonyms of murky. These two words imply different levels of darkness with varying intensity and emotion, so they would both be useful, but in different situations. Synonyms for scummy included cruddy, dirty, grubby, nasty, and wretched. The negative connotations I associated with the word scummy were confirmed.
I used to pick cool-sounding words willy-nilly from a list of synonyms I found in an online thesaurus without bothering to consult a dictionary afterwards. I have since learned to use a dictionary and a thesaurus as complementary tools—one for finding words with similar meanings, and one for finding the specific definition of a word.
So, in this case, Boat Bay at Camp Nan-A-Bo-Sho in Lakewood, Wisconsin, is a little naturally scummy on top. The water certainly gets murky when there are plenty of swimmers stirring up the bottom of the lake during open swim. Clouds of dark lake muck billow up from little feet dancing on the tips of the silky weeds, sunny rays stretching warmly and spiraling into the depths of the water. Now, I can appreciate the differences between scummy and murky water, both worthy of appreciation.
3 thoughts on “The Nuances of Scummy and Murky”
Never thought so deeply of the differences between these two words. Thank you for the very clear analysis!
Delighted to hear the voice of a young writer committed to uncovering the surprises embedded in language. While I imagine your resources are electronic, I smiled as I realize how often I reach for my own paperbound dictionaries and thesaurus. Our local river is at flood stage and I will use your lens to consider the state of the rising water.
The word Stygian showed up in a New Yorker article I am reading this morning. It was used to describe the eyes of the protagonist who had watched the love of his life spend a week in ICU in an induced coma. Without explicit reference to the River Styx, this reader had room to see those eyes which had looked into the face of death. Had I not read your essay earlier this week I wouldn’t have fully appreciated the craft of the writer in his word choice. Learning something new about language is why I enjoyed this article. Long after I had finished reading it, your essay continues to have take-away value for a writer. Great first blog for summer intern! Congratulations on a great piece.