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shameless pleading

Scads

A whole lot of fishy.

Dear Word Detective:  I picked up the word “scads” for “lots” somewhere in my travels.  Is it regional slang? — Jack.

Well, if it is, you and I have been traveling in the same regions.  I can’t remember a time when I didn’t use the word “scads” to mean “lots” of something.  I actually answered a question about “scads” a little more than ten years ago, but since that’s “scads” of time in most people’s lives, we’ll give it another go.

It was probably shortly after human beings invented counting that they realized that there were times when there were just too many of something — birds, sheep, relatives — to count, and came up with words to convey that sense of “whole lotta whatever it is.”  They didn’t abandon numbers and counting entirely, of course, so we have “thousand,” “million,” “billion,” “trillion” and so on (though I’m pretty sure “gazillion” isn’t a real number).  But even though we have names for enormously large numbers, it’s apparently not in most taxpayers’ DNA to be able to truly comprehend them, a fact highlighted lately by what the pundits have cheerily taken to calling “the global financial meltdown.”  Did you know, for example, that a million seconds is 11.5 days, and a billion seconds is 32 years, but that a trillion seconds is 32,000 years?  Yeah, me neither.  I’m gonna stick with “scads.”

There are actually seven different kinds of “scad” in English, each with its own meaning, ranging from “corpse” to a kind of plum to “a faint gleam of light.”  The kind of “scad” meaning “a large amount” is the most recent “scad.”  This “scad” first appeared in the mid-19th century as slang with the very specific meaning of “one dollar,” although it was most often used in the plural to mean simply “money” (“We have mercenary motives … We desire the scads,” 1884).  Within a few years, however, “scads” (nearly always in the plural) had come into common use in its modern meaning of “a large amount of anything” (“What did England do when she found she could raise scads of opium in India, but had no market for it?” 1904).

If you look up this kind of “scad” in any good dictionary, you’ll see that lexicographers consider the word a case of “origin unknown.”  But I have a hunch about the source of the word which, while it might not pass strict etymological muster, may very well be true.  One of the six other kinds of “scad” in English is “scad” as the name of a food fish once caught by the millions off the English coast.  (This “scad” is thought to be a variant of “shad,” a fish similar to the herring.)  It seems logical to me that the abundance of these “scads” in the nets of English fishermen in the 19th century might have made “scads” a vivid metaphor for “lots of something.”  Not only would that theory, if true, pin down the origin of “scads,” but it might also explain why the current financial crisis, involving uncountable “scads” of our money, strikes so many of us as deeply fishy.

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