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shameless pleading






Could be worse, though I’m not sure how.

Dear Word Detective: While browsing your archives (yes, I have no life!), I came across your definition of the term “scut work.” I can only assume that your were trying to keep it clean (pun intended). I am told authoritatively (by my wife, who’s an author), that the term “scut work” means the messy business of shearing the tail end of a sheep. I am inclined to agree with her (you would, too…), since one of the definitions of “scut” is “a short tail” as in a rabbit or sheep. — Jim Brown.

I have archives? Hmm. Oh, right. I have archives. Comes in handy when I forget I’ve ever answered a question about a certain word, as I just did. In my own defense, I must note that said column was written in 1999, i.e., way back in the 20th century, when cellphones had rotary dials. Incidentally, when I get the time I plan to work myself into at least half a huff over your allegation that browsing my archives means that you “have no life.” I’ll have you know that I have nearly 2,500 “likes” on my Word Detective Facebook page, which is probably way more people than I’ve actually met in my entire life. And as soon as I figure out how to get each one of them to send me fifty bucks, I’m outta here.

So the question I was answering way back when had to do with “scut work,” meaning dull, repetitive, menial and unpleasant chores, emptying bedpans in a hospital being a good example, and hospitals being one place where the term is commonly found. I had suggested the term may have come from “scut” as a 19th century slang term for “a degenerate or contemptible person.” There are, however, four separate “scuts” in English, some of which may be related, so we have some exploring to do.

The oldest “scut” appeared around 1440, meaning “a short, erect tail,” as is found on rabbits, deer, bears and hares. I suppose a sheep’s tail would also count as a “scut,” and the south end of a northbound sheep is famously unappetizing. One famous Australian personal insult, in fact, is “dag,” slang for the dried excrement found in such a place. So your wife’s observation is perfectly logical. This “scut” is of unknown origin, but may simply be a form of “short,” and seems to be related to the obsolete adjective “scut” meaning “short” as well as the obscure use of “scut” as a noun to mean “short garment.”

Another “scut” is an obsolete word for “embankment” (probably from the Dutch “schut”), which we can safely ignore.

That brings us to “scut” meaning “tedious work,” most often seen in “scut work.” This “scut” is a relatively new term, first appearing in print in 1960 (although, since that appearance was in a dictionary of slang, we can assume the word was in use for at least a decade before that). This “scut” is considered a US coinage, and is by far the most commonly encountered of all the “scuts” (“I did all the scutwork: paid the bills, ran the houses, drove the children.” 1976). As I said in my 1999 column, most authorities trace this use to “scut” meaning “a contemptible person,” which seems to be rooted in “scout,” 18th century college slang for a servant (which may in turn be based on a verb of Scandinavian origin meaning “to mock or reject”).

The theory tying “scutwork” to the “contemptible person” sense of “scut” makes sense to me, simply because the logical connection of “scutwork” being the tasks you delegate to a “scut” (or someone who ends up feeling like a “scut”).


2 comments to Scut

  • Ron

    Might Scots “Say Scoot” Meaning Scut But “Spell Scoot Scut”?

    So when viewed from the housestaff context, there’s also a hierarchy or authoritarian component.

    This combines the “hop to it, “go get it done now because I said so” concept not only with the hopping rabbit (rabbit’s tai, or “scut”), but also with the attitude needed to inherit the role, and “hop to it” to get things done.

    In this sense “scut” becomes “scoot” or “hop to it and get it done”.

    Some medical students earn their internships by squeezing in efficient “scoots” saving their interns trouble, while always also demonstrating an excellent, superior, or outstanding fund of knowledge.

    Some interns earn their residencies, by effortlessly, tirelessly, and efficiently “scooting” from task to task while practically living in the hospital, every day for a year. and saving the residents, fellows, saving their residents and attendings trouble,while providing their patients with the highest quality of care.

    What’s interesting is that at the end of the intern year (to the day) some interns declare their independence from scut, moving on to become relativelyy “scut-free” on their first day of residency. Other interns, (while excellent at “Scoot”),do not make especially good residents. That’s because residents have to know “what to do”, while interns have to be able to get the “Scoot” done. Certainly, many interns who are excellent at “Scoot”
    also become excellent residents.

    Conclusion: I’d bet our “scut” derives from both “scoot or hop to it”, and from the short tailed hopping rabbit (“scut”).

    Perhaps the medical housestaff in Scotland, (maybe at Edinburgh), within their hierarchy, assigned the “Scut”(pronounced”scoot”) tasks for their interns and medical students to hop and get done.

    That’d mean what we call “scut” (pronunced like “but”) might sound like “scoot” when spoken by the Scots.

    While in America, the Scottish “spelling”of the term “Scut” has been retained, the Scottish pronounciation of this term “scoot”, has been lost.

    Both spellings seem to connote the “hop-to-it-like-a-rabbit” idea.


  • Rob

    Some Common Unfinished Task

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