Q: In Nancy Mitord’s novels The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate, Uncle Matthew repeatedly uses the term “sewer” for anyone he doesn’t like. Is this a unique idiomatic quirk of his or do people in real life actually use “sewer” this way?
A “sewer” is literally a channel for carrying off wastewater and refuse, but the term has also been used nonliterally in reference to places and people. The earliest nonliteral example in the Oxford English Dictionary uses the term for Britain:
“This Island hath from time to time been no other then as a sewer to empty the superfluity of the German Nations.” From An Historicall Discourse of the Uniformity of the Government of England (1647), by Nathaniel Bacon, an American colonist who led an unsuccessful uprising in Virginia.
The next OED citation is from “London,” a 1738 poem by Samuel Johnson that describes the city as a home of hypocrisy and corruption: “London! the needy villain’s general home, / The common sewer of Paris, and of Rome.”
The dictionary’s only example that refers to people is from Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love (1945): “Who is that sewer with Linda?” The sewer is Tony Kroesig, a young banker who marries Linda, one of Matthew Radlett’s daughters.
We’ve seen a few nonliteral examples since then in novels by other writers. Most use “sewer” figuratively for someone who’s a conduit for something objectionable.
This is from Dean Koontz’s False Memory (1999): “He’s a sewer” (a reference to “a drug-sucking jerk”). And this is from Path of Blood (2006), by Diana Pharaoh Francis: “True enough, but he’s a sewer for gossip and sordid rumor.”
By the way, we wrote a post in 2016 on the reluctance of some sewing enthusiasts to call one who sews a “sewer” (pronounced SOH-er) because the term is spelled the same as the waste “sewer” (pronounced SOO-er). Instead, they prefer “sewist.” That post also explores the etymologies of both words spelled “sewer.”
And in 2021 we discussed the history of “seamstress” as well as gender-free nouns for someone who sews, including “sewer,” “sewist,” “seamster,” “tailor,” and “needleworker.”