Sunday, September 09, 2007



My wife's family uses the verb scutch exclusively to mean "to enjoin," as in "Mom was scutching me to get my homework done before dinner." Sort of like the evidently related heckle, but with the object of improving the person whom you are addressing. It was just one of those family words.
Then I came across a brochure for an old-timey "Flax Scutching Festival" in Pennsylvania, and the etymological mystery was solved. The root, physical meaning is to beat stalks of flax to obtain fibers which can be made into linen. The metaphorical meaning is thus, to abuse, with the intention of a practical improvement to the abused object...
Above are two images from the brochure, illustrating scutching, and also the root, physical meaning of "to heckle," which looks painful too.
So many words have drifted this way, concrete meanings suggesting metaphorical ones, until in time the metaphorical meaning obliterates the concrete one. Few English speakers make flax into linen any more, but many have the experience of bothering someone to their betterment, or of being so bothered.
As far as I know, this is an undocumented usage of the word, and I do not know of anyone outside my wife's family who uses the word this way. I would appreciate feedback if you have also heard this usage.

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