A long time to be gone.
Dear Word Detective: This one may not travel well across the Atlantic, but, whilst wandering round the pleasant and historic port of Whitby (see Captain Cook), I looked into one of the many antique shops and noticed a cabinet, full of carvings in wood, bone, shell and other such, labeled “Scrimshaw.” At first I took that to be the name of the artist, but the shop assistant told me that that was the name of stuff carved or whittled by sailors of old on their interminable voyages. Of course, when I looked later at various dictionary sources, the dreaded “origin unknown” came up. Could you shed any light on the matter? — David, Ripon, England.
I’ll give it a shot. By the way, your port of Whitby sounds quite similar, as a tourist attraction, to the Mystic Seaport near where I grew up on the coast of Connecticut. Mystic was a major whaling center in 19th century New England, and today tourists flock to the recreated village and the historic ships berthed there, including the Charles W. Morgan, the only surviving whaling ship from the 19th century American fleet. I vividly remember wandering around the decks of the Morgan as a lad, going below to see the crew’s quarters, peering into the whaleboats, and gawking up at the towering masts. It was every seafaring story I’d ever read come to life, and it was even better because it was the real thing.
The origin of “scrimshaw” is, as you discovered, a mystery. It first appeared in print (as far as we know at this point) in 1825, in the variant spelling “scrimshonting.” Other forms include “scrimshander” and “scrimshandy,” and a maker of scrimshaw is called a “scrimshoner.”
There are, of course, theories as to the origin of “scrimshaw.” One suggestion ties “scrimshaw” to a military term of the same era, “to scrimshank,” meaning “to shirk duty.” That seems plausible, but it doesn’t get us very far because “scrimshank” appeared after “scrimshaw” was already in use, and no one has the faintest idea of where “scrimshank” came from either.
One of the more intriguing facts bedeviling etymologists for years is that “Scrimshaw” is also a surname in England. No connection between the proper name and the ornate carvings has ever been established, although the existence of an especially artistic seaman named Scrimshaw is clearly a possibility.
Serendipitously, however, earlier this month Stephen Goranson, a poster to the American Dialect Society mailing list, suggested a truly plausible connection between the name and the carvings. It seems that there was, in the 19th century, a woman in London named Jane Scrimshaw who was famously reputed to have lived to the age of 127 years. The tale itself is obviously unlikely. But Jane Scrimshaw’s name became synonymous with “a long time,” especially a long time served in an occupation or endeavor. And in light of the fact that some early mentions of scrimshaw are actually phrased as “scrimshaw-work” (“… anything made by sailors for themselves in their leisure hours at sea is called Scrimshaw-work,” 1864), it seems likely that Jane Scrimshaw’s name and legendary lifespan gave us a word meaning “crafts done to pass the time while at sea for a really, really long time.”