On the scout

Or perhaps he meant “scoot.”

Dear Word Detective: In “True Grit” by Charles Portis, a horse trader describes the murderer Tom Clancy as being “on the scout” in the Indian Territory. I’ve never seen “scout” used in such a way. It certainly seems from the context that “scout” here means “hiding out” or “on the lam,” and not “exploring” as is the more common meaning of the word today. Perhaps you can shed some light on this use of the word? — Bill Lundeberg.

That’s an interesting question, and that use of “scout” strikes me as a bit odd, too. I must admit that my knowledge of “scouts” and what they do is drawn almost entirely from the TV “horse operas” of my youth (e.g., Gunsmoke, The Rifleman, and similar pacifist fare). There was also the occasional historical painting depicting some famous scout standing on an outcropping of rock pointing to another, apparently identical, outcropping of rock in the distance. Even at the age of ten, doing that for a living seemed boring to me. And that buckskin clothing looked scratchy.

There are actually, and somewhat surprisingly, several distinct “scout” nouns in English, plus two verbs. The oldest noun, dating back to around 1400, is an obsolete “scout” meaning “overhanging rock,” from the Old Norse “skute,” which is related to the verb “to shoot.” I just report this stuff, folks. Next up are “scouts” meaning “a flat-bottomed boat,” “a kind of sea bird,” and “scout” as a term of contempt, which seems to have been imported from Scandinavia as a verb meaning “to mock” and is also related to the verb “to shoot” (and possibly “to shout”). College servants at Harvard, Yale and Oxford have also been known as “scouts” since the 18th century.

None of those, with the possible exception of “scout” meaning “servant,” however, seem to be connected to “scout” in the “explorer” sense. That “scout” comes from the Old French “escouter,” meaning “to listen,” which itself came ultimately from the Latin “auscultare,” also meaning “to listen.” That “listening” meaning of “scout” is the key to the word.

To “scout” when the verb first appeared in English around 1400 was not to map out the best routes for travel and rate restaurants along the way, but to perform what we today would probably call “espionage.” A “scout” was a spy who prowled around in search of information, specifically a soldier sent in advance of the main force of an army in order to locate the enemy and report back to his superiors (“Others from the dawning Hills Lookd round, and Scouts each Coast light-armed scoure, Each quarter, to descrie the distant foe,” Milton, Paradise Lost, 1667).

This military sense of “scout” soon broadened to mean “a person sent out to gather information” in a general sense, largely devoid of those “sneaky spy” overtones, and in many uses (as in the once-popular wagon train dramas), a “scout” was simply a knowledgeable rider who investigated the trail ahead to insure the travelers’ safety. Eventually we developed such wholesome uses of “scout” as in “Boy Scouts” and “Girl Scouts,” which led, in the early 20th century, to the slang use of “good scout” to mean an honest, reliable person. The same period saw the rise of the slightly-less-wholesome “talent scouts” and “sports scouts” prowling obscure bars and small-town football fields looking for the Next Big Thing (“Vaudeville scouts approached us. Our pictures were in the papers,” Paul Whiteman, 1926).

The phrase “on the scout” (or “in the scout”) dates back to the 17th century, and means to be acting as a “scout” in the original sense of a spy or surreptitious observer (“Capt. Baker … without my leave, went upon a scout and … was shot,” 1775). In the sense that you mention, I’d say that the author meant that the criminal was traveling “as a scout would,” i.e., secretly, trying to avoid detection, definitely on the lam in a sneaky fashion, looking for nothing except a way to avoid being caught.

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