Scraping the Sky, by Lloyd Bishop

When you’re learning English, finding relationships between vocabulary words and grouping them can help you remember them longer. Speakers of English as a first language can also find such connections interesting and worth sharing with learners.

You can sometimes sense a connection between words based on their sounds and spellings. Words beginning with “s” plus another consonant or two — like those beginning with “scr-” — start off in the same way, and I’ve been wondering how related they really are. 

I’ve noticed some “scr-” words give me an immediate feeling of friction, rubbing, or cutting, like scrape, scratch, and scrub. It turns out these words evolved from early ancestral roots meaning “cut, scratch, tear.” And they’re cousins of words associated with writing:

script — something written; a text version of spoken words 

scribe — a person whose job is to write or copy documents

scribble — to write or draw something quickly or carelessly

Since writing has traditionally meant scratching a surface in some way to make language-relevant marks, the connection with cutting/scraping makes sense! Sure enough, those ancestral “cut, scratch, tear” roots evolved into Greek and Latin words meaning “write, carve marks, sketch.” 

Here are more “scr-” words related to writing, scratching, or scratching-movement:

scrawl — to write something roughly or carelessly

scramble — to stir quickly, mix together randomly; originally a variation of scrabble

scrabble — to scratch or scrape at, grab at, grope for, try to hold on to, struggle; (earlier meanings included “scrawl, scribble”; 16th-century compound scribble-scrabble meaning “hasty writing” led to the name of the popular modern word-formation game Scrabble)

Additional “scr-” words developed from the “cut/pierce, cut off/divide” meanings of those ancient roots:

scrap — fragment, piece, scraping (something cut or scraped off)

screen — panel that divides a space, shields/protects from (i.e., cuts off) wind, fire, insects, etc., or displays information

screw — pin engraved with continuous threading groove in a helix pattern that pierces, fastens, holds tightly 

The name of the infamous character Scrooge in Charles Dickens’s story “A Christmas Carol” evokes the sound and meaning of screw: for most of his life, Mr. Scrooge was tightfisted (extremely withholding: stingy with money), held tightly to his savings, and put the screws on his employees and associates (forced or threatened them to do what he wanted). 

Scrooge’s name may have been inspired by the word itself: in 18th-century English, scrooge meant “push, jostle,” according to Etymonline (see source note below), and is likely related to scrounge, which still means “try to get things stealthily, or at the expense or through the generosity of others; forage for, rummage for.”  

A few final very common and useful “scr-” words to consider:

scrutiny — close, careful, critical examination; incisive observation (i.e., cutting/piercing to the essence or truth), based on a Latin root meaning “to examine, investigate, search,” which derived from an ancestral root meaning “to cut; cutting tool.”

scream — loud, piercing cry, often high-pitched

screech — harsh-sounding scream

Screams and screeches cut through the air and seem to pierce our eardrums, so they have that “scr-cutting/piercing word-texture. These last two words developed from similar words in early northern European languages, all of which likely evolved from a much older ancestral root with the same meaning.

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SOURCES: Etymonline, the Online Etymology Dictionary ( “*sker-,” “*skribh-,” “scream,” “scramble,” “scrabble,” “Scrooge,” “scrounge,” “scrutiny,” and related entries); English Wiktionary ( “scream,” “*(s)ker-,” “*(s)kreybʰ-,” and related entries); Google dictionary ( “scrabble,” “screw,” “scrounge,” “scream,” “screech,” and related entries); Etymologeek ( “*skrīhaną”).

A version of this article appeared as a post on NYU’s English Language Institute blog on August 5, 2021.