Though these days the term wordmonger refers to "a writer or speaker who uses language pretentiously or carelessly," please join me in proposing a new meaning. A fishmonger appreciates and promotes fish, therefore, a wordmonger does the same for words.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Start from scratch


Start from scratch

The idiom start from scratch first appeared in 1918. Though we use the idiom today to refer to food preparation or a rags-to-riches life, start from scratch came from the world of sport. In a race, a starting line was scratched into the soil. A competitor starting the race with no handicap started on that line, from scratch.

Another scratch “we” started with is gerbh-, a Proto-Indo-European root meaning to claw or scratch.

Back in the day, gerbh- was employed when people wrote or drew by scratching on clay tablets. Eventually, this gave birth to the Greek word graphein, to write. We see graphein today in tons of words: graph, photograph, biography, graffiti, & on & on. After a century or three, we graduated from scratching things into clay & wrote or drew using the graphite in pencils.

And artful scratching (originally on those same clay tablets) gave us the word carve.

And gerbh- was also applied to the walking motion of some crustaceans, giving us crawdad, crab, & crayfish. Their method of locomotion, to claw one’s way, became the word crawl. And the word scrawl, to write untidily, may have also come from that idea of scratching provided by gerbh-.

Even telegram, monogram & hologram can be traced back to this idea of scratching & the root gerbh-. And because folks creating rules & such had to scratch them out in writing, we have grammar. Even more unlikely, because magical spells had to be written out, even the word glamour comes from this root.

In the history of language, there’s a lot of scratching going on. I’m hoping you might comment on it all in the comments section.


Big thanks to this week’s sources: Etymonline, Wordnik, Collins Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, & the OED.

4 comments:

  1. Word origins never cease to amaze! Grammar and Glamor come from the same root? My English professor mom would have loved to hear grammar is glamorous!

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    1. Great point, Anne. Any grammarian knows grammar is glamorous (though I'm not certain where the crayfish fits in all this).

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  2. Well...that's just crazy. You take us from scratching in dirt to images of clawing crawdads to grammar to glamour. You are amazing! And always so informative. Thanks!

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    1. Hi Christine - thanks for clawing at the grammatical glamour with me.

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