Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

"Scratching all the way to hell (second series)" by Anatoly Liberman, the Oxford Etymologist for the OUPblog

Scratching all the way to hell (second series)

Quite some time ago, I was asked about the origin of the verbs scratch and rake. At first sight, the etymology of both looks unproblematic, but modern researchers are cautious people and see reefs where the rest of the speaking community glides happily over the surface. Today, I’ll confine myself to scratch (oh, how hard it was to resist the temptation of saying that I’ll begin from scratch!).

Scratch turned up in English texts only in the fifteenth century. As usual, it does not follow that this verb was coined so late. My doubts are based on the fact that German kratzen (the same meaning) goes back to the oldest texts in that language. Middle English had two synonyms: skratten and cracchen. Cracchen looks French, and William W. Skeat, our greatest but not infallible authority for the origin of English words, believed that scratch and cracchen had been confused, that is, got into each other’s way and produced some sort of semantic blend. Perhaps they did. It is sometimes hard to tell apart even not fully identical twins.

A magpie, a kind of pie, as Beatrix Potter put it.
© Nigel Brown (CC BY-SA 2.0)

I notice that Swedish skrata means “to make a lot of noise, to laugh uproariously,” while sratta means “magpie.” Both words are rather obviously sound-imitative. To add to this list, Old Icelandic skrati meant “ghost” (a noisy creature?), and its near-doublet skratti was a designation of the Devil; hence English Old Scratch “Devil.” (See some musings on such words in the post for 2 May 2012 “Further Adventures of Scr-Words.”) Scratching does not produce a lot of noise, but the group scr- ~ skr- does occur in quite a few sound-imitative and sound-symbolic words. Scream and screech are ideal examples. Since a bird called “screech-owl” exists, I may mention Swedish skrata “owl” and skratta “to laugh.”  (The Germanic verbs for “laugh” were all onomatopoeic: laugh goes back to hlah-; compare hlah– with cluck-cluck and giggle.) English scrape, a verb of Scandinavian origin (Old Icelandic skrapa), makes one think of a jarring sound. Likewise, English scramble may or may not be a loan from Scandinavian, but borrowed or native, it does not refer to peace and quiet.

In dealing with scr– ~ skr– words, one never knows where to look: everything is so suggestive. Is the English adjective scrumptious indeed an emphatic alteration of sumptuous, as some of our sources suggest? This hypothesis is not entirely without merit. Scrimmage is, apparently, a variant or a close relative of skirmish. On the same note: where is scrouge “to crowd out” from? Dickens’s Scrooge, who scrimped and saved, knew well how to screw people and leave them screwed up. The origin of scrimp is also obscure, as it should be. A doublet of skimp? Even Latin scrībere “to write” (consider scribe, script, Scriptures, and others) belongs to our sound-imitative corpus, because writing began as scratching.

Bull nettle. This pernicious weed looks innocent, even nice, but so do most tempters.
By William L. Farr, via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

In any case, scratch and German kratzen seem to belong together, despite the gap in the chronology of their earliest attestations. To my mind, it may not be too bold to assume that even in the oldest period, a pair of synonyms sounding like kratzen ~ scratch coexisted. I even wonder whether the s-form is the later one. When we encounter the enigmatic s-mobile, the ancient prefix that attaches itself like a barnacle to the roots of so many words, we assume that the s-less form is the older one. But perhaps (just perhaps), given the coexistence of a great number of words with and without that spurious prefix, some forms with s- are at least as old as those without it. Kratzen is a verb of murky origin, but if we assume that it began its existence with s and then lost it, rather than that scratch acquired its s later (and developed from cratch to scratch), we may solve the puzzle of their relationship. Be that as it may, we are certainly dealing with sound-imitative and/or sound-symbolic formations.

Topographia infernalis

Last week, I promised to continue my series on TOPOGRAPHIA INFERNALIS. Since I did mention the Devil in today’s post, this subject will come in handy. (All the passages below are from Notes and Queries for 1884-85.)

St. Peter had a key, but did he have a waistcoat?
“The Apostle Saint Peter” by Peter Paul Rubens, Museo del Prado, via Wikimedia Commons (public domain)

Five miles beyond hell, where Peter pitched his waistcoat. No one could explain the allusion, and the modern Internet provides no help either. And here is another question that received no answer in the eighteen-eighties: “Is anything known of the origin of the saying ‘Elephant-end,’ which place is supposed to be situated ‘where the devil can’t get for nettles’”? Nettles and thistles are the proverbial food of the Devil. Apparently, the rush belong to his diet too (see below). The Devil, unable to get nourishment, is of course hungry and irate. But why elephant-end,and what does the phrase mean?

 “‘An eminent book collector, noted for his good nature, declared that a man who published a book without an index ought to be put into thistles beyond hell, where the devil could not get at him’ (Temple Bar, October 1882, p. 191.) Yet the thistle appears to be in some sense one of the devil’s plants. ‘Having met the Lord one day, the devil asked for oats and buckwheat as his reward for having taken part in the creation of the world. The request was granted, whereupon the devil began to dance for joy. The wolf came up and suddenly asked the meaning of this frivolity. In his confusion, the devil forgot what had been given him, and replied that he was dancing for joy at having received the rush and the thistle, to which plants he still adheres”

(Athenæum, Sept. 23, 1882, review of La Mythologie des Plantes, by Angelo de Gubernatis.) [Temple Bar, 1860-1906, was an excellent literary magazine, and so was Athenæum, 1828-1926. I mainly used the latter for book reviews and letters to the editor, while compiling my bibliography of English etymology and my recently published dictionary of idioms.]

Gudbrand Vigfusson (an anglicized spelling of the name of a great Icelandic lexicographer and philologist) published, in English, the following note in connection with Hekla, the volcano about which I wrote a few lines last week: “In an old Danish hymn or song of the sixteenth century I remember having read of a drove or hunt of condemned souls on the way to Mount Hecla [sic] from Denmark. Satan, the drover, called Lureman [from Danish lure “to lurk”?], sings out: “Come! come! come! you must [that is, you must go] to Heckenfield, to Hecken, to Heckenfield, with the swarm of souls into the black hole…” (The Academy, February 14, 1885). [The Academy, 1869-1902, was another first-rate magazine. One sometimes wonders how in the period 1850-1920 the literate British public could support so many popular journals and consume those thousands of pages every week, and there were many, very many more than the three mentioned here. The Wild Hunt was a story known all over Europe. At one time, in Scandinavia, the god Odin was associated with it.]

In a comment on the previous post, our correspondent wrote that he knew the phrase to go to hell in a handcart (rather than in a handbasket). I think both mean the same, that is, “to go from bad to worse,” and in both, the way of propelling the vehicle remains obscure. Perhaps the driver is Old Scratch.

Recent Comments

  1. John Cowan

    I have always understood that the handbasket to Hell is gravity-powered; that is, it rolls down the slope.

  2. John Cowan

    Rolls or slides, I should say.

  3. suohj

    Have you included “in the twinkling of a bedpost” in your new book? An idea just came up to me. Why should it be connected with Irish hospitality? It may be just a metaphor, a poetic way of saying “overnight”, on the model of “in the twinkling of the eye”, because you sleep behind the bedpost and close/open (twinkle) your eyes. On the same model I can also say in the twinkling of the bed curtain, in the twinkling of the bedroom door, in the twinkling of the chopstick (over a meal), etc. It’s a very useful model.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *