The idiom start from scratch first appeared in 1918. Though we use the idiom today to refer to food preparation or a rags-to-riches life, start from scratch came from the world of sport. In a race, a starting line was scratched into the soil. A competitor starting the race with no handicap started on that line, from scratch.
Another scratch “we” started with is gerbh-, a Proto-Indo-European root meaning to claw or scratch.
Back in the day, gerbh- was employed when people wrote or drew by scratching on clay tablets. Eventually, this gave birth to the Greek word graphein, to write. We see graphein today in tons of words: graph, photograph, biography, graffiti, & on & on. After a century or three, we graduated from scratching things into clay to writing or drawing using the graphite in pencils. And then there is digit
And artful scratching (originally on those same clay tablets) gave us the word carve.
Gerbh- was also applied to the walking motion of some crustaceans, giving us crawdad, crab, & crayfish. Their method of locomotion, to claw one’s way, became the word crawl. And the word scrawl, to write untidily, may have also come from that idea of scratching provided by gerbh-.
Even telegram, monogram & hologram can be traced back to this idea of scratching & the root gerbh-. And because folks creating rules & such had to scratch them out in writing, we have grammar. Even more unlikely, because magical spells had to be written out, even the word glamour comes from this root.
In the history of language, there’s a lot of scratching going on. I’m hoping you might comment on it all in the comments section.
Big thanks to this week’s sources: Etymonline, Wordnik, Collins Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, & the OED.
I write for teens, narrate audio books, bake bread, play music, and ponder the wonder of words in a foggy little town on California's central coast.
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