Dreck, Dreg

Bottom of the barrel.

Dear Word Detective:  I would like to know if the words “drek” and “dreg” are derived from the same base word.  They mean similar things. — Melissa K.

Good question, and it reminded me of something I learned recently.  This will seem like a complete non sequitur, but bear with me.  From talking to someone who works there, I discovered that the Olive Garden (an “Italian cuisine” restaurant chain in the US), while it charges about nine bucks for a glass of decent wine, charges only twenty-five cents for a quarter-glass “sample” of that same wine, four samples maximum per customer.  It doesn’t make the foam-rubber bread sticks any more palatable, but for a buck a glass, it can’t hurt.

Now that all the winos are on their way to the mall, onward.   “Dreck” (which is how it’s now usually spelled) and “dreg” do share a common, shall we say, ambience.  Both connote things that are generally considered unpleasant, usually unwanted and almost always useless.  But aside from their resemblance, the two words are unrelated.

“Dreg,” while it does exist in the singular form, is almost always seen in the plural “dregs.”  In a literal sense, “dregs” are the the thick sediment that settles and accumulates in the bottom of a bottle (or a tanker truck on its way to the Olive Garden) of wine or other liquor.  Given that humanity has been hitting the sauce pretty much since forever, it’s not surprising that “dregs,” which appeared in English back in the 14th century, harks back to an ancient Old Norse word (“dregg”) meaning the same thing.  “Dregs” is most often encountered in its figurative sense of “the most worthless parts” (as in “the dregs of humanity”) or “the last traces” (“He sacrificed the last dregs of his self-respect by taking the job”).  Incidentally, “dregs of humanity” is considered a hoary cliche, but, then again, “hoary cliche” is a hoary cliche.

“Dreck” is in the same ballpark as “dregs,” but even less attractive. From the Yiddish “drek” (in turn from the German “dreck”), meaning “filth or dung,” “dreck” is generally used to mean “worthless trash, garbage,” most often in a figurative sense.  So a cheap knockoff of a Rolex watch might be dismissed as “dreck” or the season’s offerings in new TV shows summed up by critics as “dreck.”  The first appearance of “dreck” in English found so far occurs, interestingly, in James Joyce’s 1922 novel Ulysses, used as a personal insult (“Farewell. Fare thee well. Dreck!”), but such ad hominem use is not very common today.

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