Posted by: Jack Henry | October 22, 2020

Editor’s Corner: Starting from Scratch

I recently edited a slide show that used the term “starting from scratch,” meaning to start at the very beginning. I’ve used the phrase myself, but I’ve never really thought about what “scratch” means. I’ve heard of the devil being called Old Scratch or Mr. Scratch, but according to Wikipedia, that is most likely from “Middle English scrat, the name of a demon or goblin, derived from Old Norse skratte.”

Looking further, to Even-Steven and Fair and Square: More Stories Behind the Words by Morton S. Freeman, he has this information on “starting from scratch”:

A person who is unexpectedly scratched may start from the surprise or the pain, or both. But the expression to start from scratch is not related to any form of skin-cutting. It came from a cutting on the ground that marked the starting point for runners in a race. The runners were said to start from scratch, the usual starting point. Handicapped competitors were given an advantage. They did not start…from the scratched line, but were placed ahead of it. In current usage of the idiom, which may refer to almost any beginning, it has retained its original sense of starting with no advantage, without having a head start over others.

Merriam-Websteralso writes about the term to start from scratch, and adds the following:

A runner starting from scratch was not given a head start; applying the same idea to other sports, a scratch golfer or scratch bowler is one good enough to play without having their score adjusted with a handicap.

The idea of the scratch as a figurative starting point then gets carried over to contexts of cooking or building, giving us from scratch as a phrase for a true starting point for such projects.

That’s it for today! All this talk of scratching has made me itchy.

Kara Church

Pronouns: she/her/hers

Technical Editor, Advisory

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