Could be worse, though I’m not sure how.

Dear Word Detective: While browsing your archives (yes, I have no life!), I came across your definition of the term “scut work.” I can only assume that your were trying to keep it clean (pun intended). I am told authoritatively (by my wife, who’s an author), that the term “scut work” means the messy business of shearing the tail end of a sheep. I am inclined to agree with her (you would, too…), since one of the definitions of “scut” is “a short tail” as in a rabbit or sheep. — Jim Brown.

I have archives? Hmm. Oh, right. I have archives. Comes in handy when I forget I’ve ever answered a question about a certain word, as I just did. In my own defense, I must note that said column was written in 1999, i.e., way back in the 20th century, when cellphones had rotary dials. Incidentally, when I get the time I plan to work myself into at least half a huff over your allegation that browsing my archives means that you “have no life.” I’ll have you know that I have nearly 2,500 “likes” on my Word Detective Facebook page, which is probably way more people than I’ve actually met in my entire life. And as soon as I figure out how to get each one of them to send me fifty bucks, I’m outta here.

So the question I was answering way back when had to do with “scut work,” meaning dull, repetitive, menial and unpleasant chores, emptying bedpans in a hospital being a good example, and hospitals being one place where the term is commonly found. I had suggested the term may have come from “scut” as a 19th century slang term for “a degenerate or contemptible person.” There are, however, four separate “scuts” in English, some of which may be related, so we have some exploring to do.

The oldest “scut” appeared around 1440, meaning “a short, erect tail,” as is found on rabbits, deer, bears and hares. I suppose a sheep’s tail would also count as a “scut,” and the south end of a northbound sheep is famously unappetizing. One famous Australian personal insult, in fact, is “dag,” slang for the dried excrement found in such a place. So your wife’s observation is perfectly logical. This “scut” is of unknown origin, but may simply be a form of “short,” and seems to be related to the obsolete adjective “scut” meaning “short” as well as the obscure use of “scut” as a noun to mean “short garment.”

Another “scut” is an obsolete word for “embankment” (probably from the Dutch “schut”), which we can safely ignore.

That brings us to “scut” meaning “tedious work,” most often seen in “scut work.” This “scut” is a relatively new term, first appearing in print in 1960 (although, since that appearance was in a dictionary of slang, we can assume the word was in use for at least a decade before that). This “scut” is considered a US coinage, and is by far the most commonly encountered of all the “scuts” (“I did all the scutwork: paid the bills, ran the houses, drove the children.” 1976). As I said in my 1999 column, most authorities trace this use to “scut” meaning “a contemptible person,” which seems to be rooted in “scout,” 18th century college slang for a servant (which may in turn be based on a verb of Scandinavian origin meaning “to mock or reject”).

The theory tying “scutwork” to the “contemptible person” sense of “scut” makes sense to me, simply because the logical connection of “scutwork” being the tasks you delegate to a “scut” (or someone who ends up feeling like a “scut”).


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