Neither words nor idioms reveal their origins to a hurried look, but the problems in dealing with these two areas are different. For example, we say to eat crow. This odd phrase means “to suffer humiliation.” We know what eat means, and we have seen many crows. But the etymology of the relevant words need not bother us. The question rather is: “Who, when, and where, ate crow, and why was it bad”? Note that crow has no article, as in, for example, neither fish nor fowl; it refers to the bird’s flesh. The observation about the lack of the article is not superfluous, because in another idiom, namely, to pluck a crow “to settle a small affair; to disagree,” the article occurs and points to the name of an individual bird. What is so special about crows? By the way, the phrase to pluck a goose also existed. In this case, we have to discover a custom, a rite, or a story behind the “language act” that interests us.
One often wonders whether some puzzling word group is indeed an idiom. People used to speak about a dish of tea. Why dish? Is a figurative meaning implied? To knock into a cocked hat: what is wrong with a cocked hat? Some people are fond of adding I don’t think to their statements. Is I don’t think an idiom? Does it have “an origin”? My local patriotism makes me cite Minnesota jog. Is this also an idiom? Not really: this jog is a triangular strip of island one can see on the map of the United States. Yet if you don’t know the answer, guessing will not take you anywhere.
Compare a few more typical questions: according to Cocker “executed with perfection” (who was Cocker?), mad as hatter (did hatters ever go mad?), funny bone (what is so funny about it?), through thick and thin and from pillar to post (who coined those alliterative binomials?), and especially pay through the nose, kick the bucket, and their likes. (You will find special posts devoted to the items highlighted above and below.) My prospective explanatory dictionary of English idioms contains phrases of all kinds. To get into a scrape is one of them. What is a scrape? Obviously, the word denotes an unpleasant situation and should have some connection with scraping, but the problem lies elsewhere. The verb scrape is common, while the noun scrape occurs rarely, and its use sheds little light on the idiom.
To be sure, similar difficulties arise in the search for word origins. To follow the history of the word bread, we have to know what product was once called “bread” and how people made it. In similar fashion, in order to discover the etymology of bride, a detailed study of marriage rules and rites of the remotest past is needed. But at a certain point, a student of word origins begins to wallow in phonetics and grammar. The science of etymology is at a crossroads of linguistics and culture and needs a researcher versed in countless technicalities, while the history of idioms is mainly an area of culture, and a non-specialist can offer a reasonable hypothesis.
So what is a scrape? The Old English verbs resembling “scrape” were scrapian and screpen. Screpen would have yielded screap, but scrapian looks like a fine etymon for scrape, except that the meaning of the Modern English verb is much closer to that of Old Norse skrapa. Therefore, the English verb is usually believed to be a borrowing from Scandinavian, rather than being a direct continuation of scrapian. We can also say that the English verb modified its meaning under the influence of its northern cognate. Wherever the truth lies, it does not make the origin of the idiom clearer.
I am aware of three worthwhile observations that purport to account for the rise of the metaphor at the bottom of our idiom. 1) From Hamlet’s soliloquy, we remember the phrase there’s the rub. The noun rub occurs in Shakespeare six times, and it has been explained very well indeed: rub “in bowls, an obstacle by which a bowl is hindered in or diverted from its proper course; obstacle (physical or otherwise); unevenness, inequality.” Shakespeare also knew the verb to rub “to encounter an obstacle.” As early as 1853, a correspondent to Notes and Queries cited Shakespeare’s rub as a clue to the phrase get into a scrape. He also mentioned at a pinch (this is the British equivalent of American in a pinch) as having a similar basis. This was a good idea, but, like many other good ideas in etymology, it has been lost.
2) Robert Chambers in his once famous The Book of Days…(1864) wrote: “There is a game called golf, almost peculiar to Scotland, though also frequently played upon Blackheath, involving the use of a very small hard elastic ball, which is driven from point to point with a variety of wooden and iron clubs. In the north it is played for the most part upon downs (or links) near the sea, where there is usually abundance of rabbits. One of the troubles of the golf-player is the little hole at a burrow; this is commonly called a rabbit’ scrape, or simply a scrape. When the ball gets into a scrape it can scarcely be played. The rules of most golfing fraternities, accordingly, include one indicating what is allowable to the player when hegets into a scrape. Here, and here alone, as is known to the writer has the phrase a direct and intelligible meaning.” Swedish srkapa means, among several other things, “reprimand”; the great lexicographer Edward Lye (1694-1767) was aware of this fact. In 1889, St. Swithin (the pseudonym of Eliza Gutch) quoted the relevant passage from The Book of Days and called into question Hensleigh Wedgwood’s suggestion that “scrape, in the sense of difficulty, is perhaps from the metaphorical sense of Sw. skrapa.” The source of scrape “difficulty” need not delay us here, but it is characteristic that the golf term was at one time current only or mainly in the north. (Incidentally, those interested in the etymology of the word golf may consult the post for July 6, 2011.)
3) Not only rabbits but also stags make scrapes. Such deer holes are hard to detect, and people break their legs while walking in parks. In an ironic comment on this statement, another correspondent wondered why deer holes should be more dangerous than rabbit holes or cart ruts. We can conclude that a scrape is a scrape (a hole, a rut), and getting into it is dangerous for both balls (golf balls) and legs.
With regard to the origin of the phrase, the OED is noncommittal: “Probably from the notion of being ‘scraped’ in going through a narrow passage.” Yet the reference to a sporting metaphor, reinforced by the analogy of rub, looks attractive.
Featured image credit: Flock by pcdazero. Pixabay License via Pixabay.