Scotching the Snake.

My wife asked me about the verb scotch, as in “to scotch a rumor”; I looked it up, and the history is so interesting I had to post about it. The OED entry (updated June 2011) explains it well:

1. a. transitive. To make an incision or incisions in (esp. the flesh); to cut, score, gash. Formerly also †intransitive. Now rare.
?c1425 (▸c1412) T. Hoccleve De Regimine Principum (Royal 17 (1860) 134 Withe his nailes cracched he his face, And skocched [a1450 Harl. 4866 scocched] it withe knyves and torent.
1906 C. M. Doughty Dawn in Brit. IV. xvi. 217 Cruithni other bands Are named; for birds’ and beasts’ similitudes, Seen scotcht in their tough flesh, or prickt, with woad.
1921 J. Dos Passos Three Soldiers vi. iii. 402 ‘Say, is your face badly cut up, Al?’ ‘No, it’s just scotched, skin’s off; looks like beefsteak, I reckon.’

b. transitive. In conjunction with notch. Cf. out of all scotch and notch at scotch n.1 Phrases. Now rare.
Chiefly after or with reference to Shakespeare: see quot. a1616.
a1616 W. Shakespeare Coriolanus (1623) iv. v. 191 He scotcht him, and notcht him like a Carbinado.
1976 M. Long Unnatural Scene iii. 61 The scotching, notching and broiling of Rome and its wars.

2. a. transitive. To render (something dangerous or undesirable) temporarily harmless or less harmful, without destroying it completely. Originally and frequently in the snake is scotched, but not killed and variants (see note).
After Theobald’s reading of Macbeth iii. ii. 13 (see quot. 1726). The word was previously rendered scorch’d, as it appears in the First Folio; subsequent (esp. 19th-cent.) editions of Shakespeare often use scotch’d, though modern scholars usually prefer scorch’d. Cf. scorch v.3
1726 L. Theobald Shakespeare Restored App. 186 If I am not deceiv’d therefore, our Poet certainly wrote thus; We have scotch’d the Snake, not kill’d it. She’ll close, and be her self.
1759 S. Fielding Hist. Countess of Dellwyn II. iv. ii. 158 The Snake was scotched, but not killed.
1996 Cycle Touring & Campaigning Apr. 25/4 So far, the snake has been scotched, not killed.

b. transitive. To crush, stamp out (something dangerous or undesirable).
1825 Q. Rev. 32 277 If we, in our own language, were to scotch the insidious forgetfulness, we might, perhaps, be accused of ‘coarse and insulting abuse’.
1880 A. H. Huth Life & Writings H. T. Buckle I. iii. 189 Attempting to scotch the pestiferous germs of heresy.
1908 Expositor Dec. 527 Fanaticism which constitutes a danger to mankind should be scotched.
1999 P. Gregory Virgin Earth 543 More particular were the thanks of the Quakers who came under his protection while he scotched the last of the royalist rebellions.

So a variant reading of a Shakespeare line wrenched a verb out of its semantic course and sent it off in a different direction; my Signet Classic edition of Macbeth has “scorched” and doesn’t even mention Theobald’s reading, but the Arden edition edited by Pamela Mason and Sandra Clark has this footnote:

scorched slashed or scored, as with a knife (OED scorch v.3). Theobald’s emendation ‘scotch’d’ has often been adopted, and Shakespeare does use ‘scotch’ as a verb elsewhere (e.g. Cor 4.5.189–90: ‘he scotched him and notched him’); but he also uses ‘scorch’ meaning gashed or slashed in CE 5.1.183: ‘to scorch your face and to disfigure you’. The snake is Duncan, who although dead lives on in his sons.

The etymology is “< Anglo-Norman escocher, eschocher to pierce (skin) (c1193) < escoche notch (c1190) < es- es- prefix + Old French coche notch (see cock v.4)”; AHD adds “(probably from Latin coccum, scarlet oak berry, from Greek kokkos).”


  1. I wonder if Theobald didn’t notice the (apparent) Comedy of Errors meaning of “scorched” and simply thought that it was odd to fight a snake with fire.

  2. Charles Perry says:

    A side development of the word was butterscotch, a version of hard toffee (which combined butter with hard-crack sugar syrup) that was broken in pieces for sale. There was a special roller for this purpose.

  3. David Marjanović says:

    Withe his nailes cracched he his face

    s mobile being mobile right in front of our eyes !!

    Cruithni other bands Are named; for birds’ and beasts’ similitudes, Seen scotcht in their tough flesh, or prickt, with woad.

    OK, that’s a pun.

    and simply thought that it was odd to fight a snake with fire.

    I wondered if KILL IT WITH FIRE is a TV Trope.

    Of course it is.

    The page contains this quote:

    “Of course you should fight fire with fire. You should fight everything with fire.”
    — Jaya Ballard, task mage, Magic: The Gathering, Sizzle

    and this meta-warning:

    NOTE: Due to the above-mentioned Memetic Mutation [link], the name of this trope has become associated [link to “Square Peg, Round Trope”] with anything that someone finds abhorrent and wishes to not have witnessed. This trope is not about those things. Please redirect all potholes using this trope in said context to Brain Bleach [link] or a similarly appropriate trope.

  4. Yahyaoğlu says:

    Frankly, the etymology now found on the AHD website is a non sequitur.

    Old French coche, notch (probably from Latin coccum, scarlet oak berry, from Greek kokkos)

    Why is a notch like cochineal? Why is a raven like a writing desk?

    The etymology dates from the 3rd edition of the AHD (the AHD3). Its content was doubtless taken from the Französisches Etymologisches Wörterbuch (FEW). But because of severe space and time restrictions imposed on the AHD3 lexicographical team, it was edited into incomprehensibility. Moreover, AHD3 editorial policy eschewed all discursive explanations of semantic development, aberrant phonology, or other philological complications, however useful such information—even in the shortest, most telescoped form—might have been to the reader in understanding the etymologies. The AHD3 editors even suppressed such useful explanations when they found them in the etymologies inherited from the first edition (AHD1). Sadly, the editorial teams of the AHD4 and the AHD5 were under the same restrictions of space (no more material could be added to the book without cutting other material elswhere) and even tighter deadlines and corporate production schedules, so many etymologies inherited from the AHD3 were simply not reviewed or revised in the preparation of later editions. Since English dictionaries are closing or contracting, non sequiturs like the etymology for scotch, and other problematic etymologies in the AHD, will doubtless never be addressed.

    In this particular etymology, even the AHD3’s “scarlet oak berry” is confusing to someone who is unfamiliar with what is meant: the berrylike bodies of females of the scale insect Kermes vermilio (which feeds on certain Mediterranean oak species), used to make crimson dye. (And another thing… Scarlet oak in American English has a specific referent, Quercus coccinea, a North American species that has nothing to do with kermes dye production. This makes the etymology even more confusing at first read—the things aren’t the “berries” of that particular scarlet oak… Sigh.)

    But even when we understand the Latin word coccum in the etymology correctly, the semantic development proposed by the FEW (and earlier by Meyer-Lübke in his Romanisches etymologisches Wörterbuch) is a bit of stretch: “kermes berry” > *“gall, protuberance” > *“knob” > “nock of an arrow (a cap of horn, bone, etc., fitted to end of the arrow shaft and having a notch for receiving the bowstring); nock of a spindle” > “notch of any kind”. Whether you accept this development or not, the AHD still should have spelled it out in more specific terms and assisted the reader in making the connection. The Trésor de la langue française simply rejects this proposed development, under the entry for coche “notch”:

    Orig. obsc.; du fr., de l’ital. còcca « entaille (sur une flèche) » (xives., DEI) et du prov. encocar « encocher » (1re moitié xiii s. ds Rayn.), on peut déduire un lat. vulg. *cocca qui échappe encore à toute explication; d’apr. Cor., s.v. hueca, il pourrait s’agir d’un rad. pré-roman. Un rattachement au lat. coccum au sens de « excroissance (sur une plante) » d’où « sorte d’excroissance à l’extrémité de la flèche » (FEW t. 2, p. 822a; REW3, № 2009) est peu satisfaisant du point de vue sémantique.

    The AHD1 had the following, according to its way of treating reconstructed forms in the main text, which was a bit clumsy:

    [Middle English scocchen, to cut, perhaps from Anglo-Norman escocher, to notch : es-, intensive pref. (from Latin ex-; see EX-) + Old French coche, notch, from Vulgar Latin cocca† (unattested).]

  5. Butterscotch: and scutch hammers and scutch chisels are still used to cut bricks into shape.

    But scotch (or skatch) can also mean the chock that stops a wheel rolling away downhill, apparently a different word, but also used figuratively – my tiny print OED has citations from 1639 (‘Behind there is a skatch to stay the wagon in some steep descent’) and 1601 (‘It is time so soon as our breathing hath set a scotch upon time’). So you might scotch a rumour, if not a snake, by not letting it run out of control.

  6. Yahyaoğlu says:

    My apologies. There must an unclosed blockquote tag after “kokkos)” in my post above. Unfortunately it was sent to spam when I posted it, so I couldn’t see the error and edit it while it was still editable. Maybe Language Hat could close the tag for me?

  7. Done, and thanks for another extremely informative comment! It’s such a shame that the AHD was not allowed to be as great as it had the potential to be. I’ll always love it, just as I’ll always love my Mets, but both loves are made bitter by bad management.

  8. David Eddyshaw says:


    A harmless Turkish drudge, I take it?

  9. J.W. Brewer says:

    A prior season’s lineup of a baseball team inevitably fades into memory, and videotape isn’t the same as having seen something live, but the hard copy of the AHD1 I was given as some sort of prize for some sort of academic achievement when I was in 8th grade (1978-79 academic year) is still in my possession and still perfectly serviceable. No less serviceable than a hard copy of a more recent edition would be, unless the recent edition somehow were more useful on net and I guess I’m being told it wouldn’t be.

  10. Before reading this post, I would have assumed that ‘scotching the snake’ means ‘securing the snake by wrapping scotch tape over it’.

  11. ə de vivre says:

    Don’t scotch the snake too often, you’ll go blind…

  12. David Eddyshaw says:

    (Old Sumerian proverb.)

    Tiresias (now I think of it) did exactly that. Along with talking back to Hera (never a good plan.)

  13. The mythological development of Tiresias is something that has always rather interested me. However, I don’t know much about it—beyond some titbits of commentary I picked up from whatever unremembered sources, along with the vague inferences that I drew myself. Does anybody know whether there is a cogent academic discussion of the evolution of the Tiresias character?

    (The most significant specific issue with Tiresias, it seems to me, is how he came upon his profound wisdom. I seem to recall that in some older sources—perhaps The Odyssey among them—it seemed that he was the wisest of all mortal humans simply because he had lived as both a man and a woman. His blindness may have simply been a consequence of his extreme age in this telling—a thematic, rather than substantive, element of his enlightenment story. Yet later chroniclers, either misapprehending this part of the story or simply not caring for it, must then have created the story about him being blinded and receiving wisdom from Zeus as a consolation for his lost sight.)

  14. >But scotch (or skatch) can also mean the chock that stops a wheel rolling away downhill,

    I wonder how or whether this relates to skitching. Apparently there are now many types of skitching. The only method I knew growing up is referred to in wiki as snow skitching.

  15. John Cowan says:

    I actually wrote a poem about Tiresias back when I was interested in androgyny (high school) rather than taking it for granted (college and thereafter). I can’t find it now, though.

  16. Owlmirror says:

    And skocched [a1450 Harl. 4866 scocched] it withe knyves and torent.

    I wondered if “torent” was a variant of “torrent”, meaning a figurative (raining) of strikes and cuts, or perhaps a variant of “torment” with an elided “m”, but the OED says that “torent” should be read “to-rent”, a form of “to-rend”; “to rend in pieces”.

    As for “scotch”, given that it seems to be a variant of “scorch”, itself “An alteration of score v.; perhaps after scratch” (OED), I wonder if the “o” originally was pronounced more like the “o” in “score”, but altered because of the prevalence of the ethnonym and its pronunciation, about which the OED says:

    The contraction of Scottish to Scotch is first recorded in late Middle English in the compound Scotchman n. (see quot. 1407 at sense A. 1a), but then not until the second half of the 16th cent. (see quot. 1563 at sense A. 1a). From that time until the mid 19th cent. Scotch supersedes Scottish as the prevailing form (in all registers) in England (with the latter remaining available as a less common and markedly formal synonym). Scotch first appears in Scotland in the late 16th cent. (earliest in the form Skotsh), becoming more common in the following cent.

    Although perhaps “scotch” (cut, score) was pronounced with a sound more like “a” in “scratch”? Hm.


    But scotch (or skatch) can also mean the chock that stops a wheel rolling away downhill

    The OED says that a scatch is a stilt, or scaffold-pole.

  17. Before reading this post, I would have assumed that ‘scotching the snake’ means ‘securing the snake by wrapping scotch tape over it’.

    The “scotch” in this case is actually in the sense of “Scottish” – an early tester of the tape thought it didn’t have enough adhesive on it and called it “Scotch tape” because he wanted to imply that the manufacturers had been stingy with the glue. He could, I suppose, equally have used another stereotype of an ethnic minority supposed to be tight-fisted and called it “Jew Tape”. The Scots=skinflints stereotype (see also Scrooge McDuck, etc) has largely died out in the US – though not in the UK, where it was frequently aimed at Scottish politicians as recently as 2010 – and hence the name is no longer seen as questionable (see also Aunt Jemima Syrup, Darkie Toothpaste, etc.)

    “Scotch” itself is no longer widely used as a variant of “Scottish”, except for whisky, but it’s not seen as offensive, simply dated.

  18. PlasticPaddy says:

    I was going to mention “Welch/welch” as a parallel (originally and still?) pejorative verbal analogue.

  19. Jen in Edinburgh says:

    It could equally well be the opposite, and that we wanted to make sure all our stuff stuck to us and didn’t get away! 😀

    I’ve never heard of Scotch tape as offensive (although we mostly have sellotape, anyway) – ‘scot free’, occasionally, but that really is a different word.

  20. David Eddyshaw says:

    Within Scotland itself, it’s Aberdonians who have the reputation of being “no mean, but careful.”

    I’d say that my wife fits the stereotype quite well, but that might cause trouble, so I won’t.

    As for me, I am both stingy and untrustworthy. Standards must be maintained, and our cultural heritage is precious.

  21. The British stereotyping of Scots as miserly (or “mean,” in a sense of the word that has also largely been lost in American English) went right over my head as a child, even though I watched a lot of imported British television. I had no trouble getting the references, on shows like Doctor Who, and Monty Python’s Flying Circus, to the decline of the British mining industry in the 1970s. However, I completely missed both program’s jokes about the Scottish national character—including the subtext to the famous Python sketch about the poet McTeagle. (The old YouTube video has been taken down, but here is another link to it at dailymotion.)

  22. John Cowan says:

    But it’s in Embro where they say “Ye’ll have had your tea, I suppose?”

  23. David Eddyshaw says:

    True, true. To some degree, it’s all Easterners (it’s safe to say this, now that the world’s greatest Edinburger is, alas, no more …)

    Do you expect me to give you tea, Goldfinger?

  24. Stu Clayton says:

    No, but I’ll just snatch the Scotch, if you don’t mind.

  25. Have a little more of this rather disappointing brandy.

  26. “Ye’ll have had your tea, I suppose?”

    There’s a discussion of this phrase here, where “neil” says:

    As a Glaswegian in exile in the Far East (Edinburgh), I’ve always known it as a (probably unfair) caricature of the “inhospitable” Edinburghers in contrast to the welcoming “you’ll be wanting yer tea” in Glasgow.

  27. J.W. Brewer says:

    I think for some reason I’d had the notion that Scotch tape was so named because it helped the thrifty-to-miserly hold together stuff that would otherwise fall apart rather than spend the money for a replacement like a member of a differently-stereotyped ethnic group would. Or something like that. Same stereotype, but related to the product differently. Come to think of it, the comparative lack of stickiness that the fellow complained about means the same length of tape can be removed and reused elsewhere, which is undoubtedly a boon to skinflints.

  28. January First-of-May says:

    On my own end, I naively assumed that scotch tape was so named because it was originally produced in Scotland. TIL.

  29. As a Minnesota product, maybe the tape can be related to some Scandinavian-American stereotypes.

  30. David Marjanović says:

    I simply took for granted there was a Mr. Scotch who marketed it…

  31. Trond Engen says:

    Me too.

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