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“Scram” and its ungainly kin

On April 18, 2012, while discussing the etymology of shrimp, I wrote that I had once looked up the word scrumptious, to find out its origin. Much to my surprise, I read that scrumptious is perhaps sumptuous, with –cr– added for emphasis. On May 2, 2012, I attacked shrew. My romance with shr- ~ scr-words abated, but I never forgot it. Today, I’ll continue those two stories and again look at shr– and scr-. It is unfortunate that so many scr-words are not spelled with skr-, but this is a mere detail, one of the oddities of our erratic spelling, an irritating distraction. (Would a cake taste worse if spelled as kake? Perhaps, because its rather suspicious origin would then come to the fore, but, since, in everyday life, speakers do not think about the etymology of the words they use, kake might be a welcome improvement. However, before Spelling Reform accomplishes its work, we must enjoy what we have. See the post for May 23, 2007: it is all about eating one’s cake and having it.) Now back to scrumptious! The explanation of its origin looked fanciful, but dealing with scr-words shows that the respectable dictionary did not screw me, if, for a change, I may use such an un-genteel verb in a scholarly blog.

To an etymologist, a quick look at English scr-words presents a curious picture. My sources for this post are The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology (ODEE) and Robert L. Chapman’s American Slang, along with a few articles from old periodicals. The ODEE devotes a special entry to the initial group scr-, from which we learn that this group may have the following sources: 1) Old Engl. scr-, even though, as a rule, it changed to shr-, as in shred and shroud; 2) Old Norse scr-; 3) Old French escr-, as in screw, but this Old French word is of Germanic origin; it simply returned “home” from France; 4) Middle Low German or Middle Dutch schr-, as in scrub; and 5) an expressive modification of cr– and in scrunch, from crunch. Obviously, it is only the last rubric that will interest us here.

I regularly, one might think with excessive zeal, refer to sound imitation (also known as onomatopoeia) and sound symbolism. To be sure, such references should be used with reserve, because it is silly to explain away difficulties by conjuring up the ghost of extra emphasis, but the more one studies words, the more one realizes how important those factors are. Though it is impermissible to replace serious work by saying “expressive,” it is also silly to disregard the factor that played and plays an outstanding role in word formation.

The etymology of “screech” my be doubtful, but the ecology of the screech owl is known quite well. Photo by Greg Hume, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Why should scr-~ skr- have risen to such prominence? We don’t know or at least are not sure. (Think of scream and screech.) The fact is that it did. Below, I’ll mention the history of a few words. Perhaps the most curious one is scram. This verb was apparently coined in twentieth-century American English, and there is an agreement (only an agreement!) that it emerged as a shortening of scramble, another word of the same type. This is perhaps more probable than referring to a blend of scamble and cramble, both again meaning more or less the same, that is, “make one’s way by clambering.” In the earlier period, one finds scrame “to pull or rake together with the hands,” scram “to search for what can be picked up,” and three synonyms for “snatching at, raking, scraping together,” as indicated in the OED and repeated in Henry C. Wyld’s The Universal Dictionary of the English Language. (The entire sk-group was investigated in a thorough 1936 German dissertation.) Given this embarrassment of riches, it is hard to decide how exactly scram came into being.

The verb made its triumphant way through cartoons and comic strips, the source of many slang words. From cartoons scram “graduated” to headlines. I borrow this information from V. Royce West’s paper in American Speech 12, 1937, 195-202.  West suggested that the use and even the origin of scram should be sought among the gangster elements, with whom the word seems to have been popular. It triumphed easily (the infinitive to scram has been recorded too!), and scram back, down, from, out, and over appeared. It was once even altered into amskray.

In German, one can say schramm ab!  “get lost!”, apparently a close analog, rather than the source of the English verb. Then we find British dialectal scrim “move quickly” and British scrimshank “to shirk one’s work.” Scrimshank is a well-connected noun. We remember scrimmage ~ scrummage (rugby) which once meant “noisy contention, confused struggle” (spelled with sk- for a change, from the earlier scrimish), seemingly related to skirmish, which, despite its spelling, is of Romance origin. Then there is scrimshaw, originally “handicraft practiced by sailors on long voyages” (a kind of boondoggle?) but now recognized mainly as “whalebone with carved or ornamented design.” Next to it in the dictionary stands scrimp “scanty,” a Scottish word, looking like shrimp, with which I began this essay.

Scrimshaw at its best. Image by Daderot. CC0 via Wikimedia Commons.
Scrooge, the ultimate sk[r]inflint. Scrooge and the Ghost of Marley by Arthur Rackham, 1915. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Then there is Scottish and Irish scran “food; pieces of meat,” especially often used in the phrase bad scran “bad food” and by transference “bad luck.” Another expressive word? Probably. John Hotten, in a famous slang dictionary (1864), wrote: “Scranning, or out on the scran, is begging for broken victuals; also an Irish malediction of the milder sort.” Against this background, the dialectal word scrannel “lean,” known since the seventeenth century, does not come as a surprise. Its synonyms were skrank and skranky (ignoble but “expressive” epithets). Some scr– words could be sound-imitative. Such is probably (Old) Scratch “devil,” perhaps related to Icelandic skratta “to laugh” (devils were known to make a lot of frightening noise). Scream and screech have been mentioned earlier in this story.

Whenever we look, scr-words denote things petty and undignified. They were doomed to engender one another, and at one time scr– seems to have taken on a life of its own. (Such formations resemble mushrooms, reproducing by spores.) Here are some more slang words of the same type. Verbs synonymous with the F-word are countless in many languages. Among them, American English has scrag and scrog, reminiscent of screw, scroogle and scroogy (the latter a baseball term, probably an individual formation). Scrounge “to acquire illicitly” is a variant of scrunge “steal,” while scrouge “to crowd out” is a variant of scruze. Dickens must have known some of those verbs, for otherwise, he would not have called his character Scrooge. Scrunch is a variant of crunch. Even the origin of scruff and scrub is obscure (both may be borrowed words).

Against this background, one begins to believe that scrumptious is indeed a reinforced variant of sumptuous. It must mean “really sumptuous.” People always ask how our earliest words were coined. This is how, which does not mean that we have a clear picture of the mental processes of our distant ancestors or that scrunch and scrag are ancient (similar coinages turn up again and again), but old words were invented, and emotions must have played an important role in the process.

Feature image credit: public domain via Stockvault.

Recent Comments

  1. Randal W Richards

    SCRAM is also the procedure adopted if a nuclear reactor goes out of control. The term apparently comes from the Chicago Pile of 1942 where a man was stationed with an axe to cut through the rope holding a cadmium control rod if control was lost, dropping the rod into the core and shutting the nuclear reaction down. H e was known as the ‘safety control rod axe man’ – SCRAM.
    Of course this could be an apocryphal story

  2. Elizabeth M. Riddle

    Note that “amskray” is a Pig Latin formation.

  3. John Fitzpatrick

    One might also mention the charming military acronym SCRAM: Serviceability Criteria for Retrograde Movement. “Retrograde movement” is a euphemism for “retreat,” and SCRAM determines whether equipment will be carried out, left in place (e.g., for allies), or destroyed.

  4. Ian Ritchie

    There is also a jet engine known as a scramjet which is formed an acronym: supersonic-combustion ramjet, possibly coined with the word “scram” in mind.

  5. Vivian Ramalingam

    James Brunot did not invent the game “Cross-Cross”, but he and his wife bought the rights from the inventor and trademarked the name “Scrabble.” Neither of them could remember which one of them came up with it.

  6. Celia Nyamweru

    Thankyou Elizabeth Riddle – I was just about to say the same thing scram to amskray being Pig Latin. Maybe we could have more discussion of Pig Latin sometime?

  7. […] most famous scr-word, as discussed in last week’s post. Photo by Richard Mortel of Edvard Munch’s The Scream, 1893, National Gallery, Oslo. CC by […]

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