Dear Word Detective: I’ve heard the phrase “making from scratch” or “starting from scratch” and wonder about its origin. Can you help? — Barbara Schultz.
Sure, I’d be happy to help. But are you sure you wouldn’t rather make up your own answer? Many people, especially on the internet, seem to enjoy inventing their own word origin explanations “from scratch,” using nothing more than a six-pack of beer, a few half-remembered scenes from old pirate movies, and whatever details they happen to recall of a childhood visit to Colonial Williamsburg.
To start or create (especially to cook) something “from scratch” means to make it from the most basic components or ingredients, with no help from kits, mixes, snap-together parts, packets of pre-mixed spices or flavorings, anything that requires “just adding” anything, contains the word “Helper” on the box, or comes in a box itself. Hard as it may be to believe here in Microwave Nation, there was a time when, if one wanted a cake, one went out to a store and brought home flour, eggs, sugar and a bunch of lesser ingredients and mixed it all together according to instructions in a cookbook. The result was called, at the time, simply a “cake,” but today it’s often termed a “scratch cake.” That’s a good example of a “retronym,” by the way, an updated name for something (e.g., “acoustic guitar”) necessitated by the arrival of a new form of the thing (in this case, the electric guitar).
“Scratch” itself is a very old word, dating back to Middle English. Interestingly, the verb “to scratch” apparently originated as a combination of two other Middle English words, “scrat” and “crach,” both of which also meant “to scratch.” The origin of all these words is, alas, uncertain. Once in use in modern English in the 15th century, “scratch” as a noun progressed from simply meaning “a cut or abrasion on the surface of something” to having a wide range of meanings.
One of the most fertile such uses was “scratch” meaning “the starting line” or “boundary” of an athletic competition, often originally simply a line “scratched” in the dirt. In boxing, for instance, the “scratch” was the line in the middle of the ring, up to which the boxers stepped at the start of a bout, which produced the idiom “step up to the scratch,” meaning “step forward to tackle a task or responsibility.”
In foot races, the “scratch” was the starting line, and “to start from scratch” meant to run the race with no advantage, no handicap or head start, i.e., “with nothing.” The literal sense of “from scratch” was in use by 1867, but by the late 19th century “from scratch” was being used in its modern sense of “starting with nothing” (“We’d no fishing tackle of any kind, not even a pin or a bit of string. We had to start from scratch,” George Orwell, 1939).
“Scratch” has many other slang uses, of course. Unfortunately, “scratch” as slang for “money,” which appeared in the early 20th century, is a complete mystery. “Scratch” or “Old Scratch” as a term for the Devil has nothing to do with “scratch” in the “cut” sense, but comes from an Old Norse word (“skratte”) meaning “goblin.”