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shameless pleading

Scruff of the neck

Cats are also masters of revenge.

Dear Word Detective: It is possible to pick up, literally, a kitten or small dog, and metaphorically a small child by “the scruff of the neck.” What exactly is a scruff, and are there any scruffs that are not “of the neck”? — Allan Pratt.

Hmm. Folks should be careful about that “scruff of the neck” tactic with dogs and cats. It’s true that parent critters often transport their young for short distances in this fashion. And it’s true that you can temporarily immobilize a cat on a table by firmly grasping the loose skin on the nape of its neck, a secret which can come in handy if you have to give it medicine, teach it Esperanto, or whatever. But I’ve read that you can also inadvertently injure the little creature by doing this, and it’s definitely not a good idea to pick up a grown cat or dog this way, because you’re effectively suspending it in mid-air by its neck.

There are actually two “scruffs” in English, each with both a noun and a verb form, but the odd thing is that neither of them actually started out as “scruff.” The older of the two appeared in the 16th century meaning “a scaly or scabby condition of the skin” or simply “skin flaking; dandruff.” This “scruff” represents a variant spelling of “scurf,” a much older word, meaning roughly the same thing, which has relatives in many European languages and seems to come from an old Germanic root meaning “to gnaw or shred.” This “scruff,” having diverged from “scurf,” lost most of its literal “yucky skin” senses and as a modern noun is used only to mean either “rubbish” or “a dirty or contemptible person.” This noun form of “scruff” is rarely encountered today. But it’s very popular in its adjective form “scruffy,” which can mean anything from excessively dirty, slovenly and possibly savage (“It is because they … live … in a scruffy fashion, following the impulses and necessities of beasts,” 1974) to merely a bit on the shabby side (“Always late, crumpled and scruffy, perpetually in debt, hourly expecting the sack, Greare takes refuge … in Mittyesque fantasies,” TLS, 1958).

The other sort of “scruff” is, as noted, unrelated to the “itchy skin” kind of “scruff.” It first appeared in English in the late 18th century meaning, as it does now, the nape of the neck, the back of the neck at the base of the skull. (“Nape” itself is a bit of a mystery, incidentally. It may come from the Old Frisian “halsknap,” cup, in reference to the hollow at the base of the neck.) By the way, the verb form of this “scruff” means “to seize by the nape of the neck” (“I once had a narrow escape of being ‘scruffed’ by an alligator,” 1885).

But this while this “scruff” has been popular since its first appearance (“He would have fallen overboard, if I hadn’t caught him by the scruff of the neck,” 1834), its original form in English was actually “scuft.” The origin of “scuft” is (predictably) uncertain; it may be related to the North Frisian “scuft” (back of a horse’s neck), the Dutch “schoft” (shoulder), or the Old Norse “skopt” (hair of the head). This “scuft” also produced the variant “scuff,” which may or may not be related in some fashion to the verb “to scuff,” meaning “to brush against lightly” or “to scrape with the feet.”

I’d advise against paying too much attention to any of this “scuft/scuff” business, however. The important part came when people started to use the very similar word “scruff” in place of “scuft” and “scuff” to mean “nape of the neck.” Of course, that meant that English suddenly had two “scruffs,” one meaning “dirt or rubbish” and the other meaning “nape of the neck,” but that doesn’t seem to bother most people.

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