Q: When a friend, a fourth-generation Maine islander, likes something, he says, “Well, that’s not too rusty.” I always assumed it was just him, but I recently reread Huckleberry Finn, where a hungover duo is “looking pretty rusty.” Is this an Americanism or does it go farther back? I’ve always thought of rusty as strictly having to do with old iron.
A: English speakers have used “rusty” figuratively since the Middle Ages to describe the appearance, morals, refinement, or fitness of people. And we still often use the adjective in figurative senses derived from its original use for the coating on oxidized iron and its alloys.
For example, if your knowledge or skill is impaired by lack of practice, you might say your tennis or typing or constitutional law or Mandarin is rusty. Something that’s the color of rusting metal—hair, leaves, fur, a sunset—may be described as rusty. And a hoarse or grating voice is sometimes said to be rusty.
The noun “rust,” as you may imagine, is very old. When it showed up in early Old English writing, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it meant a “red, orange, or yellowish-brown substance which forms progressively as a flaking, permeable coating on the surface of iron and its alloys as a result of oxidation, esp. through exposure to air and moisture.”
The dictionary’s earliest example is from an eighth-century Latin-Old English glossary: “Erugo, rust” (Corpus Glossary, MS 144, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge).
The OED’s next citation is from a Latin-Old English version of Matthew 6:19 in the Lindisfarne Gospels: “In terra ubi aerugo et tinea demolitur: in eorðo ðer uel huer rust & mohða g[e]freten bið uel gespilled bið” (OE translation: “On earth where rust and moth corrode or devour”). The manuscript was written in Latin around 700. A scribe added an Old English gloss, or translation, in the 900s.
The adjective “rusty” also showed up in Anglo-Saxon times. It’s written as rustega in the dictionary’s earliest Old English example: “Þa wurdon Ianes dura fæste betyned & his loca rustega, swa hie næfre ær næron” (“Then the gates of Janus were shut fast and their locks became rusty as never before”). In ancient times, the doors at the Temple of Janus in the Roman Forum were closed in times of peace and opened in wartime.
Getting back to your question, “rusty” began taking on figurative senses in the 1300s, when the term could mean physically decrepit or morally corrupt. The OED’s earliest citation for the decrepit sense is from Chaucer’s Middle English translation of an Old French allegorical poem:
“Ful hidous was she forto sene / Ful foule and Rusty was she” (“Full hideous was she to the sight / Full foul and rusty was she”). From Fragment A of The Romaunt of the Rose, a translation, believed done by Chaucer in the 1360s, of the first part of Le Roman de la Rose (circa 1230), by Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun.
The dictionary’s earliest citation for the morally corrupt sense of “rusty” is from William Langland’s Piers Plowman (1378). In the allegorical poem, Piers says he won’t hire “Robert þe Ribaudour [the tale-teller] for his Rousti wordes.”
Over the years, “rusty” has been used figuratively to describe many other things, including something that’s rust colored (late 1300s), writing that’s rough or unsophisticated (c. 1425), a grating sound or hoarse voice (c. 1430), someone lacking polish or refinement (1456), physical or mental impairment because of age or inactivity (perhaps 1507), something that’s old-fashioned or obsolete (1549), and knowledge or accomplishment impaired by disuse (1575).
Some of those senses are rare or obsolete today, but contemporary standard dictionaries say “rusty” can now refer to something that’s rust-colored, to knowledge or skill impaired by lack of recent practice, to someone who’s stiff with age or inactivity, and to a hoarse or croaking voice.