A ‘slush fund’ is 1) a collection of money by a political official, commercial enterprise, etc. that is most used to make payments for various services. Though slush funds may be used for legitimate purposes, the term is generally used to describe money set aside, out of the public gaze, that is not properly accounted for and which is used for personal expenses, corrupt practices, payoffs, etc. 2) money raised by a group, such as office personnel, for gifts, parties, or other special occasions. [‘slush’ (1641), originally the watery substance resulting from the partial melting of snow or ice, was perhaps borrowed from a Scandinavian source (compare Norwegian and Swedish ‘slask,’ slushy ground or weather, mud, mire, obsolete Danish ‘slus,’ sleet, and modern Danish ‘slud’)].
Although ‘slush fund’ eventually came to be associated with shady dealings, its origin was quite innocuous. The ‘slush’ (1756) in ‘slush fund’ was the surplus fat or grease collected by the cook (also known as the ‘slushy’) from meat (usually salt pork, a staple of 19th century naval ships) after it had been boiled in the kettles in the ship’s galley. This ‘slush’ next followed one or more of three routes. 1) On some ships the ‘slush’ was one of the perquisites of the ship’s cook. He would sell it to the purser (an officer on a ship who handles financial accounts and various documents relating to the ship and who keeps money and valuables for passengers) who would in turn sell it in port usually to be made into candles (known as “pusser’s dip,’ a long-lasting candle made by repeatedly dipping the central core or wick into the fat and allowing it to congeal). 2) Some of the ‘slush’ was used (usually mixed with linseed oil, tallow soap, and any remaining fat) for lubricating and rubbing down masts, spars, and rigging to help preserve them against water-rot. 3) The sale of the slush in port by the purser would go into a general fund (the ‘slush fund’) a) to be distributed among the ships officers b) to buy luxuries for the ships officers c) to buy some items for the crew.
By 1866 the nautical term had been applied to a contingency fund set aside from an operating budget by Congress. It later found its way into political and other slang (1874) and into the 20th century as the secret fund used for unsavory purposes, and finally into common use as the innocent office fund, etc.
But how did ‘slush fund’ change in meaning from an accepted practice in the sailing navy to what became a questionable practice in business and politics. One source suggests that the collected ‘slush’ was a somewhat distasteful and repulsive brew, which was to be kept apart and stowed away and out of the light of day just as political and commercial slush funds were later hidden from view, to be used for the benefit, most usually, of a few (e.g. ship’s cook and/or officers).
(Barnhart Concise Dictionary of Etymology, Facts on File Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins, Picturesque Expressions by Urdang, Ship to Shore by Jeans)<1839 “The sailors in the navy are allowed salt beef . . . From this provision, when cooked . . . nearly all the fat boils off; this is carefully skimmed . . . and put into empty beef or pork barrels, and sold, and the money so received is called the SLUSH FUND.”—‘Evils & Abuses in Naval & Merchant Service’ by W McNally, xvii. page 162>
<1874 “We have had this ‘SLUSH FUND’’ since 1866 . . . It was divided among these officers to increase their salaries.”—‘Congressional Record, 16 April, page 3166/1>
<1894 “[Cleveland] was not elected in 1888 . . . because of pious John Wanamaker and his $400,000 of campaign SLUSH FUNDS.”—‘Congressional Record, 16 January, page 904/1>
<1924 “A huge fund alleged to have been deposited in a Washington bank to the credit of a widely-known citizen very intimate with men prominent in public life . . . The name given to the mysterious fund is the ‘SLUSH FUND’ . . . ‘SLUSH in the American acceptance of the word, means illicit commission, bribery, corruption, and graft.”—‘Glasgow Herald,’ 16 February, page 10>
<1938 “They gave liberally to a SLUSH FUND which he collected periodically and distributed where it would do the most good.”—“Sucker’s Progress” by Asbury>
<1980 “The company had a secret $600,000 SLUSH FUND for entertaining Pentagon officials.”—‘Washington Post,’ 1 February, page A1/1>
<2003 “For all the debate over President Bush's $87 billion supplemental request for military operations and economic reconstruction in Afghanistan and Iraq, no one seems to have noticed that the sum includes a SLUSH FUND of at least $9.3 billion, which Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld can spend pretty much as he pleases.”—“Rumsfeld’s $9 Billion SLUSH FUND” in ‘Slate,’ 10 October>
Ken G – November 10, 2004