Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Can you itch an itch?

Can you itch an itch?

Reading Dan Chaon’s novel Sleepwalk last summer, I noticed his use of the verb itch to mean scratch. The main character makes observations like these:

“I think, and itch my beard thoughtfully.”

“I itched the band that held my ponytail”

“I reached down to itch my thigh”

I imagined that the choice of the nonstandard itch was part of the author’s fleshing out of the character, a fifty-year-old mercenary with many aliases. (Dan Chaon, if you are reading this, feel free to weigh in).

The use of itch for scratch reminded me of the way that learn gets substituted for teach, as in “That’ll learn you.” Learn for teach used to be common and it goes way back. It occurs in Much Ado about Nothing where Claudio says, “Sweet prince, you learn me noble thankfulness,” and the Oxford English Dictionary gives examples of learn meaning teach in the Wycliffe and Coverdale Bibles. By the time of Webster’s 1928 dictionary, however, the usage was considered “inelegant” and “improper.” The Dictionary of American Regional English dubs it “somewhat old-fashioned” and “especially frequent among speakers with grade school education or less.” 

Then there is the use of borrow for lend. The Dictionary of Regional American English identifies it as “scattered” through the country but used especially around the Great Lakes area and especially “among young speakers and speakers with grade school education.” 

The use of itch for scratch is not widely documented in dictionaries. It is mentioned in The Random House Unabridged, which lists it as informal, with the meaning “to scratch a part that itches.” The American Heritage Dictionary gives the meaning “to scratch (an itch)” without any usage label. But the scratch sense is absent from both the Dictionary of American Regional English and the Dictionary of Americanisms on Historical Principles, and it isn’t noted in the Oxford English Dictionary, Webster’s Second, or Webster’s Third. My colleague Kirk Hazen noted a 1947 OED entry where itch seems much like scratch: “With long sensuous strokes he smoothed a patina of paint down the chairlegs, then itched with fussing dabs the corners and underneath.” The OED gives the meaning as “to cause an itch,” but “scratch” seems just as likely.

David Minger, a linguist who uses itch and scratch interchangeably, suggests the two words are “welded at the hip semantically” and have similar sounds as well. That makes sense. If some article of clothing feels scratchy to us, we say that it itches. We also say itch when we get poison ivy or bug bites. Sharp objects, like cat claws or rough wood, don’t itch, they scratch. 

It’s not hard to imagine language learners sorting out the semantics of itches and scratches with scratching as external (from cats) while itching includes both skin irritations and the remedy as well.    

As people gain exposure to the standard usage, they may adjust their usage accordingly, scratching pushing out itching. But some people may not adjust to the standard. And some may use both forms, sometimes scratching an itch sometimes itching it.

I did some targeted listening. One speaker who ordinarily uses scratch switched to itch to refer to a recurring irritation. That got me thinking about that some people may use itch for persistent itches and scratch for less persistent ones. 

I asked a former student of mine, Emily Negus, who has a particularly good ear for informal language. Emily said her mom uses “don’t itch it” when telling her not to scratch at poison oak. Emily came to the same conclusion as me about itch and scratch:

When I hear the phrase “he scratched it” I think of someone scratching at an itching spot a couple of times. But when I hear the phrase “he itched it” I think of someone repeatedly scratching an itchy area. Thus “itching it” has a longer duration of scratching than “scratching it.”

It’s possible too to find suggestive textual examples, like this from a 1925 New York State worker’s compensation case involving dermatitis. The arbitrator comments that:

The evidence is, from the witness here, that he did suffer from a skin disease and itched himself, as some people call it, or rubbed himself on account of that disease so much that his fellow employees complained…

And there are plenty of examples of dogs and other animals referred to as persistently “itching themselves.” I’ll spare you those examples.  

It’s beginning to look like there is more to the itch-versus-scratch difference. Dictionaries have barely scratched the surface on this.

Featured image by FOX via Pexels, public domain

Recent Comments

  1. Thomas Hansen

    Scratch vs. itch.

    It is hard to imagine these words as synonyms. We scratch an itch but do not itch a scratch, right?
    Here is traditional English children’s rhyme that makes the distinction nicely:
    “To scratch where it itches is better than riches.”

  2. Dan Chaon

    Hi, Edwin, thanks for mentioning my book. I was trying to get at an American colloquial voice similar to my Dad’s which was an unusual combination of rural Iowa and 1970’s Southern California. As for “itch” vs. “scratch,” my Dad tended to use “scratch” when referring to something more violent: a cat scratch, for example, or “scratching yourself” on a nail, ie a “scratch” seemed to involve a minor wound that breaks the skin.
    See also: “it’s just a scratch.”

Comments are closed.