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Q From Chris Burke: In the north-east of England where I live, food is commonly referred to as scran. On a local radio program recently, claims were made that this word derives from a nautical acronym — Sultanas, Currants, Raisins And Nuts — a mixture designed to provide a degree of nutrition to the scurvy-ridden crew. I am always wildly sceptical when it comes to acronyms as etymology, especially so when a seafaring angle is introduced. In short, I think this explanation is complete twaddle. What say you?

A It’s complete twaddle.

But I can see where the idea is coming from. Scran has long been used as slang in the British army and navy for rations. And a high-energy food used by walkers and mountaineers containing much the same ingredients, which is known variously as gorp and scroggin, has names that are also said to be acronyms. The thought that seamen might have been fed on such an expensive diet, one hard to preserve at sea, rather than the staples of salt pork and ship’s biscuit, would have caused naval officers of sailing-ship days to collapse in laughter.

The first recorded sense of scran, from the early eighteenth century, actually refers to a reckoning at a tavern. By the early 1800s the word was being used almost exclusively in relation to food. The implications seemed always to be that it was inferior or scrappy food, odds-and-ends, leftovers, and the like. It might be a scratch meal taken by a labourer into the field, or perhaps some miscellaneous items for a holiday excursion or picnic, as well as those soldiers’ and seamen’s rations.

It was widely used in London in the nineteenth century. An example appears in a letter by the Victorian social writer Henry Mayhew that was published in the Morning Chronicle in November 1849: “Others beg ‘scran’ (broken victuals) of the servants at respectable houses, and bring it home to the lodging-house, where they sell it.” If you were out on the scran, you were begging food; you might have a scran bag to hold your gleanings. There’s also the Anglo-Irish bad scran to you, an imprecation that curses you with ill luck, literally wishing bad food on you. And scran bag has long been used in the Royal Navy for the place where confiscated personal possessions or lost property were kept until retrieved or sold.

Unfortunately, as often is the case, we have no good idea where the word comes from. A link was once suggested with the Icelandic skran, rubbish, odds and ends. The Oxford English Dictionary suggests this is probably an accidental similarity, even though the English Dialect Dictionary — based on fieldwork during the later nineteenth century — includes the sense of a morsel or scrap, for example quoting “A scran of a moon hung dead in the south” from an 1881 story.

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Page created 09 Dec 2006