A Scuffle over “Scuffle”

I’m back to inviting readers to submit quotations whose origins they want me to try to trace, using my book, The Yale Book of Quotations, and my more recent researches.

Jim asked:

This is a little different and may not really be possible to trace but…

For whatever reason, I am very irritated by the constant use of the world ‘scuffling’ to mean ‘struggling’ — as in having a hard time — by sportswriters and TV sportscasters and analysts (i.e., ‘Ever since his concussion, Justin Morneau has been really scuffling at the plate’). I was heartened to see that this New York Times article was reprinted with ‘struggling’ in place of ‘scuffling’ (see note at the bottom of the page).

Photo: aturkus

I think of ‘scuffling’ in the context of fighting or struggling physically, not struggling in terms of performance in a sport or in a job, what have you. Do you agree that ‘scuffling’ in this context is misused? And, can you trace the beginnings of this mis-usage? I realize this is slightly different than what’s usually asked here but thank you.

Jim, you clearly have a keen sense of word-usage. You are right that the original meaning of ‘scuffle’ (documented by the Oxford English Dictionary back to 1590) was “To struggle confusedly together or with  another or others; to fight at close quarters in a disorderly manner, with pulling, pushing, and random delivery of blows; to tussle.” But the English language is continually changing, and other meanings of the word have evolved over time.  The OED records seven later shades of meaning of “scuffle.”  One of these, dating back to 1939, is “To survive with difficulty, to make a bare living by uncongenial or degrading means. slang (chiefly U.S.).”  This meaning, like many common slang words in twentieth-century English, comes from a jazz musician context.  A 1956 book about jazz included the sentence “Scuffle is to get by.”  It seems very likely that the baseball usage you have noticed is a development of the jazz usage.  Recent research has suggested that the word “jazz” itself originated in the baseball world, and “scuffle” may be an example of jazz returning the favor.

Do any readers have any other quotations whose origins they would like me to attempt to trace?

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  1. Bill says:

    Great Scott!

    As in, I’d love to know the origin of the phrase made famous most recently by Christopher Lloyd’s zany character in the Back to the Future series, but also used with some frequency much earlier by Hank Morgan, Mark Twain’s own Connecticut Yankee.

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  2. assumo says:

    I added this to the comment section of Fred’s last post, but it might have been overlooked.

    I’d like to know where the phrase “dead to rights” comes from. It is the name of a popular video game series and has been used recently in pop culture (with all of the police themed TV shows lately). I know what context it’s used in, but has the meaning been skewed over the years?

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  3. jennifer atkinson says:

    When did we start calling social security, medicare, and medicaid “entitlements”? Seems like they might well be deemed obligations.

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  4. Scott says:

    I’d like to know where we got the phrase “Hell bent for leather” – seems pretty odd to me overall.

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  5. David says:

    Where does the non-biblical quote “I never said it would be easy, I only said it would be worth it”, supposedly said by Christ, actually come from? It’s become very popular in Christian, especially Mormon, circles.

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  6. Lisa Sansom says:

    I was at a presentation recently and the speaker was wondering about this quote: “There are very few differences among people, but those that do exist are very important” (or something like that). Any ideas?

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  7. Shane says:

    Ah, interesting: divided by a common language again, since here in Ireland (and presumably in Britain?) scuffle means “to fight at close quarters in a disorderly manner”. Had never heard of the other meaning :)

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  8. Eric M. Jones. says:

    This was discussed earlier of course. Sir Walter Scott wrote extensively about “honour” and “valour”, possible due to his own physical problems keeping him out of the services. Mark Twain hated him and his writings.

    From Wikipedia: “In Life on the Mississippi, Mark Twain satirised the impact of his writings, declaring that Scott “had so large a hand in making Southern character, as it existed before the [American Civil] war”, that he is in great measure responsible for the war”…. He goes on to coin the term “Sir Walter Scott disease”, which he blames for the South’s lack of advancement. Twain ridiculed chivalry in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, in which the main character repeatedly utters “great Scott” as an oath. He also targeted Scott in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, where he names a sinking boat the “Walter Scott”.”

    I think the belief that “Great Scott” referred to General Winfield Scott are in error.

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