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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”).



Into the Wayback Machine, Sherman!

Dear Word Detective: I happened to come across a discussion of the word “fracas” in today’s newspaper, where they say it’s derived from the Italian word “fracasso” meaning “to smash.” However, my generally trusty Oxford English Dictionary (OED) tells me that the word comes from French (without going into greater detail). So who’s correct here? This sort of set me wondering: Are there any words — mainstream words I mean, and of not too recent vintage — where provenance is not conclusively established at all? Might “fracas” be one such? — Partha Sen Sharma.

There are tons of them; just browsing through any good dictionary at random will produce many words we use every day whose etymology is noted as “origin unknown” or qualified by “perhaps.” Your use of the word “provenance” in this context, incidentally, is especially apt. From the Latin “provenire,” meaning “to appear, arise, originate,” the noun “provenance” at its most basic level means simply the origin of something. But it also means the verified history of a thing. For instance, the “provenance” of a painting by a famous artist, a documented record of the hands through which it has passed since its creation, is considered vital to authenticating and properly valuing the work. In the case of the etymology of a word, our only guide is the written record, a record that often grows more spotty the further back you trace the word. The good news is that such an investigation often illuminates the way a given word has evolved in form and meaning over the centuries. The bad news is that in many cases the details of its exact origin remain a bit fuzzy.

In the case of “fracas,” meaning “a noisy quarrel,” “a disturbance” or, more generally, “an uproar,” the newspaper and the OED are actually in agreement; the newspaper just skipped a step. English acquired our “fracas” by adopting the French word “fracas,” so it’s fair to say that it “came from French.” But the French word came from the Italian “fracasso,” a noun (not a verb) meaning “crash or uproar,” which came from the verb “fracassare,” meaning both “to smash” and “to create an uproar.” The Italian words go back to the Latin “quassare,” meaning “to shake” (also the root of our English “quash”).

“Fracas” is actually of relatively recent vintage, first appearing in print (as far as we know so far) in 1727, and its meaning has remained the same since its first use, which is a bit unusual. That may be due to its flexibility; a “fracas” may be anything from a social commotion (“He … occasions such fracas amongst the Ladys of Galantry that it passes [belief].” 1727) to an actual fistfight (A … violent fracas took place between the infantry-colonel and his lady.” Vanity Fair, Thackeray, 1848) to the sort of political ruckus that keeps the cable news channels in business (“IRS faces more heat from watchdog report amid Tea Party fracas.” recent Reuters headline).


The quicker mixer-upper.

Dear Word Detective: Could you please explain the word “ply”? As a noun, I associate it with “two-ply” paper towels, referring (I guess) to the layers of paper. But as a verb it seems to mean “convince” or “bribe,” as in “ply a politician with money.” I also see it used in reference to ships “plying” oceans, people “plying” their trades, etc. If all these “plys” are the same word, I really don’t see the connection. There’s also the “plywood” people put up over their windows when hurricanes approach. Is that also connected to “ply”? — B.T.

I have a theory about plywood and hurricanes. A reasonable person might ask, and many have, why people in places like Florida run out to buy plywood every time a storm looms. What, they ask, happened to last year’s plywood? My theory (and I admit to being a lifelong plywood-hater) is that as soon as the danger passes, they burn the dreadful stuff, because plywood is an abomination, abhorrent and anathema to nature. Incidentally, as for why residents of the northern US buy new snow shovels every winter, it’s because their garages are impassible tangles of junk they bought on eBay.

The reason that “ply” can mean all those various things that you mention (and more) is that English actually has two verbs “to ply,” which developed separately and are considered different words (although if you go back far enough they turn out to share a common ancestor). Curiously, they both seem to have appeared in English at roughly the same time, in the late 14th century.

The basic sense of one sort of “ply” is “to bend or fold,” and it comes from the Old French “plier,” also meaning “to bend,” which was derived from the Latin “plicare,” meaning “to bend, fold, twist or lay.” In English this “ply” initially meant “to bend or fold,” especially fabric or other material, and “to fold over, double or shape.” This use gave us the noun “ply” meaning “layer or strand,” eventually producing both “two-ply” paper towels and “plywood,” which is composed of thin slices of real wood glued together. The “bend” sense of “ply” also gave us the name of “pliers,” a hand tool used to bend and cut wire as well as to grip and turn bolts, etc.

This “ply” was also used, up until the 18th century, in a figurative sense of “bend” to mean “to change someone’s mind” or, intransitively, “to bend to another’s will,” a sense preserved in the adjective “pliable” meaning “easily influenced” (especially, in the case of politicians, with money).

The other “ply” in English is actually simply an aphetic, or shortened, form of the common verb “to apply,” which also dates back to the 14th century and also comes from the Latin “plicare” (to fold or lay) plus the prefix “ap,” giving the sense of “to bring things into contact” or “to apply force to.” The form “ply” initially meant “to wield a tool, etc. forcefully” or, more generally, to “apply” oneself to a task, career, business, etc. (“He that plies to his business finds it, when grown familiar to him, a state of satisfaction.” 1774). In a nautical context “ply” means to move forward, make progress on one’s course, especially a routine route between two points (“Hardy bargemen who ply Father Thames by day and night from Twickenham Ferry to the Nore.” 1897).