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Q From Wayne Simpson: Do you have any idea of the origin of the expression to scotch something, meaning to toss, deep-six, 86, or reject some idea or plan?

A It’s an elusive word. The one thing the experts are sure about is that it has nothing to do with Scotch in the Scottish sense. Dictionaries often amalgamate this word with scotch in the sense of gashing, or cutting a mark or notch, but there seem to have been two distinct terms involved. Your one comes from the old word meaning to stop something from moving. You might, for example, scotch a gate open with a stone, or scotch a ladder by putting something at its foot to stop it slipping, or scotch a wheel with a chock or stone to stop a cart or carriage from running away.

An example appears in The Parent’s Assistant, by Maria Edgeworth, dated 1796, in which children are being taught to beg from passing traffic: “The next day, the little boy and girl went with their grandmother, as they used to call her, up the steep hill; and she showed the boy how to prevent the wheels from rolling back, by putting stones behind them; and she said, ‘This is called scotching the wheels;’ and she took off the boy’s hat and gave it to the little girl, to hold up to the carriage-windows, ready for the halfpence.”

An old form of the noun, for the block or stone you used to do the scotching with, was scatch. Taking it further back is hard, but it might be connected to scatch in the sense of a stilt or pole, a word once used in English dialect for pattens, shoes with raised soles to lift your feet out of mud or slush. In turn this is linked to skate.

Whatever its origin, by the latter part of the nineteenth century scotch was being used figuratively for frustrating some plan or decisively putting an end to something — metaphorically putting a stone under its wheels.

Confusingly, there has been yet another sense of scotch that means to render something temporarily harmless. For example, Sabine Baring-Gould wrote in The Deserts of Southern France in 1894: “From the time of St. Louis, the feudal power in France was scotched, though far from killed.” This comes from a reading of a sentence in Shakespeare’s Macbeth: “We have scotch’d the snake, not kill’d it”. This is actually the cutting or gashing sense of scotch, likewise of obscure origin.

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Page created 02 Apr 2005