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The first recorder of this strange word was the antiquarian John Aubrey, who wrote in his Brief Lives about Dr Ralph Kettell, who had been President of Trinity College, Oxford, between 1599 and 1643. Kettell had had an inventive way with invective, describing the undergraduates of the College as rascal-jacks, tarrarags, blindcinques and scobberlotchers. Of the last of these, his opinion was that:

these did no hurt, were sober, but went idling about the grove with their hands in their pockets and telling the number of the trees there or so.

Brief Lives, by John Aubrey, c1697.

We may assume that counting trees was a way to pass the time, like twiddling one’s thumbs, not a herald of silvicultural ambition.

To waste the potential of this mouth-filling and mysterious word on idle boys is almost an affront against language. It would surely better fit a violent robber who strikes down unwary travellers or a mythical monster which terrorises remote Scottish glens.

The Oxford English Dictionary points, tentatively, to two old words as possible antecedents. One is the eastern English regional scopperloit, a time of idleness (perhaps from Dutch leuteren, to idle, the source of English loiter). The other is the verb scoterlope, to wander aimlessly.

This is another of its rare appearances:

“Good-morrow, Master Richard!” hailed the man, in a voice that matched his person. “What! not abroad yet, thou bed-worm, thou scobberlotcher!” and leaning down rolled a snowball in his massive hands, but desisted at the last moment from throwing it at Dick’s window lest it should enter by mistake the adjoining room, where his father and mother slept; and flung it instead with great shrewdness at Sally, the pretty serving-maid, who was sweeping the snow away from the top flight of broad front steps.

Dick Willoughby, by Cecil Day Lewis, 1933.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 28 May 2011

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
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Last modified: 28 May 2011.