This all started because while editing an article in MS Word for a veterinary journal, I noticed that the spellchecker did not recognize the word scrapie. That’s odd, I thought—it’s a reasonably common word that I (who am not given to browsing books about the diseases of livestock) have run across any number of times in my reading career. Why wouldn’t it be in the spellchecker’s dictionary? As is my wont, I went directly to the OED, where it was defined as “A subacute, invariably fatal, disease of sheep and goats, characterized by degeneration of the central nervous system, leading to uncoordinated gait and itching.” So far, so good. But the first citation was from 1910! Surely such a homely word referring to such a common rural phenomenon must have been around for centuries, and in fact the 1910 citation (from Vet. Jrnl. LXVI. 711) implies it’s not an innovation: “Shepherds and farmers.. class more than one disease with totally different symptoms under the head of Scrapy.” How can it not be attested before that?

So I thought I’d check to see how far back the comparable French word was attested, only to discover it wasn’t in any of my bilingual dictionaries. It’s not in my Russian ones either, but the Yandex online dictionary has it, and the translation they give is скрепи [skrepi], clearly borrowed from English. Do sheep not get this disease outside Merrie England? And did sheep there not develop it until the nineteenth century?


  1. Andrew Dunbar says

    You can learn a little from Wikipedia. Apparently it’s been known since 1732 but an older name is not given. Most of the other languages that have an article use the English spelling (German, Interlingua, Dutch, Portuguese, Finnish). A couple also have a native word (Dutch “schuurziekte”, German “Traberkrankheit”). French uses “Tremblante du mouton”, Icelandic uses “Riða”. Japanese also borrows the English word.
    Scanning through the various languages’ articles for “Prión” I also found “prurito lumbar” for Spanish and “סקרייפי” for Hebrew.

  2. Wikipedia says it dates from 1732, but doesn’t provide a reference.

  3. It’s comparable in its effects to BSE, and _that’s_ certainly a recent development. The OED citations give one author as saying it existed at least since the mid-eighteenth century, and another author as calling it a disease of the border areas of England and Scotland, which would seem to limit it geographically; this link seems to suggest at least one scrapie case in Colorado, but in somewhat artificial conditions.

  4. I am irrationally fond of the word scrapie, so your post caught my eye. I’ve just searched the full-text Eighteenth-Century Collections Online database for both “scrapie” and “scrapy” and there’s definitely nothing sheep-related; how surprising… I’ve read a lot of 18th-century books on agriculture, and I guess I haven’t seen it there. Though there are a lot of books in that period about sheep. John Dyer’s “The Fleece” has a long section on disease but I don’t have it here to hand.

  5. Is scrapie similar to brucellosis? There is a variety of folk names for that one.

  6. You’re startled that there are egregious lacunae in Word’s vocabulary?
    I want to live on your planet.

  7. Good to know you’ve got some good work gigs going on. 🙂

  8. Gail: I wouldn’t say “startled,” exactly, but I did want to see if there was some reason it wouldn’t be there!
    mj: Yeah, it’s a relief.

  9. Ian Myles Slater says

    To throw in my speculation:
    I suspect that the 1910 citation reveals something about why documentation of folk-names for some animal diseases might be poor. Partly from snobbery (obviously) and partly because they don’t always correspond well to “clinical entities.” What newly minted Veterinarian, in a newly recognized Profession, wants to write about “the Staggers” or “the Shivers,” when he can come up with more impressive names for several diseases with overlapping sets of symptoms?
    Especially if some of symptoms can be declared to be, to the educated eye, “totally different.” I wonder what the ‘shepherds and farmers” used as their principle of disease taxonomy. Were they like the late-eighteenth century physicians who declared “all fevers are one”?
    So it might be that real anomalies, like scrapie, are the ones that happened to get a popular name, when a residual set of symptoms remained after all the rest had been assigned elsewhere. To the exclusion of all the other names it might have gone by over the years, and in other places.
    The problem I see with all of this neat theorizing on my part is that wool was a major part of the British economy for centuries, and one would expect a lot of information on anything that threatened upper-class incomes by killing off the all-important animals that produced it.

  10. It’s “la tremblante” in French (

  11. John Emerson says

    Here’s a list of names of Animal diseases which don’t affect humans.
    “Scours” is diarrhea of livestock. One of my friends in HS convinced me that each species had its own unique name for diarrhea, the way that “wether”, “gelding”, “steer”, “ox”, “barrow”, and “capon” all just mean a castrated male of different species. But I think that my friend was lying to me.
    There is apparently no special name for a castrated duck.

  12. Andrew Dunbar wrote:

    Scanning through the various languages’ articles for “Prión” I also found “prurito lumbar” for Spanish and “סקרייפי” for Hebrew.

    For those who can’t read Hebrew, “סקרייפי” is a borrowing from English; just imagine “scrapie” pronounced with a thick Israeli accent.

  13. That’s another thing — why on earth are other languages borrowing this (admittedly charming) English word for the disease? Did the yokels just look dumbly at their sheep falling over and scratch their heads until a passing Englishman said “I say, that creature has the scrapie”?

  14. Your comment that you’ve come across the word scrapie any number of times though you’re not given to browsing books about diseases of livestock reminded me of the passage in Halldor Laxness’ Independent People where everybody is discussing sheep diseases and drinking coffee while they wait for the priest to come. The thought of Icelandic people chatting about sheep diseases made me wonder what the Icelandic word for scrapie is (I don’t read Icelandic — I read Laxness in translation). Here’s what I got:
    samvinna á sérstökum sviðum utan marka fjórþætta frelsisins
    … aðferðir til að greina, staðfesta tilvist og hafa stjórn á mengandi íðefnum og sjúkdómsvaldandi örverum, sem þegar eru til eða eru nýjar (á borð við veirur, gerla, gersveppi, sveppi, sníkla og nýja áhrifavalda af príongerð, þ.m.t. þróun prófana til að greina kúariðu og riðuveiki fyrir slátrun)
    Stjtíð. EB L 232 (302D1513), 20. 2. 2002, 13
    There’s probably a clue here if you know Icelandic.

  15. Should’ve read the comments. I see Andrew Dunbar already listed the Icelandic word.

  16. aldiboronti says

    The complete text of Dyer’s Fleece is online, Jenny.
    Searching turns up no instance of scrapie but I haven’t had a chance to peruse it yet for equivalent terms.

  17. Not sure there are consistent reasons why a word is left out of Microsoft’s spellchecker. Your postings inspire me to try weird experiments with Word though… so… I ran the text of Jack London’s To Build a Fire through Microsoft’s spellchecker. It did not surprise me that it didn’t have “chechaquo”, “liftings”, or “siftings”. It mildly surprised me that it didn’t have “mittened” because it does have gloved. The big surprise was that for “sulphur” it suggested all these:
    BUT NOT “sulfur”, which is the spelling it accepts.
    By the way, what does Upshur mean?

  18. John Emerson says

    Word rejects most proper names and a large number of obvious derived forms (like “mittened”). It also gives bad grammatical advice with compound subjects.
    It’s been said before, but those guys are awful.

  19. By the way, what does Upshur mean?
    It’s the name of counties in Texas and West Virginia, both named after Abel Parker Upshur, a Virginia lawyer and politician who became Secretary of the Navy and Secretary of State under President Tyler; “on February 28, 1844, while joining the President and many other dignitaries for a Potomac River cruise on the new steamship USS Princeton, Secretary Upshur and several others were killed when one of the ship’s guns exploded.”
    The family name (also spelled Upsher) is from Upshire in Essex.

  20. The modern version be modern too, The Disease comes about because of using brain matter, under cooked, which was not done ’till Farmers using offal in feed and to save money, it not be fully cooked. Progress is not always upward.
    It is common in those that be cannibalistic in nature, therefore in my limited thinking , as is late manifestation, it be grafted on to an existing condition.

  21. Often words are omitted from spellchecker dictionaries because they are far more likely to be misspellings. For example, “suer” is usually a typo for “user”, despite its plain morphological decomposition as “sue” + “-er”. Therefore, leaving it out of a spellchecker dictionary helps more than it hurts.
    I bet “scrapie” is a common typo for “scrape”.

  22. Maire Smith says

    Even if scrapie does date from as far back as the 18th century, that’s pretty amazingly recent. Very interesting.
    It seems plausible that it will have been caused by a change in their feed.

  23. Is scrapie similar to brucellosis? There is a variety of folk names for that one.
    No, it’s a prion disease similar to Bovine Spongiform Encephalitis.

  24. Russian has pochesukha for this disease, as well as skrepi. Pochesat’/chesat’, the related verb, also means to scratch, scrape, and Ushakov gives skrepit’ as a synonym, which may have made skrepi more likely to be accepted.
    Also, I think scrapie may have been called trembles – the latter is caused by toxic plants – and the new name may reflect a new understanding of there being two diseases?

  25. Claude Detienne says

    The French “tremblante” is dated 1836 in the “Dictionnaire historique de la langue française”.
    It can be found in the Robert & Collins Super Senior Dictionary.

  26. the new name may reflect a new understanding of there being two diseases?
    But surely such an understanding would have come from scientists, and surely they wouldn’t have introduced a name like “scrapie” in the 19th century; besides, the citation attributes the word to “Shepherds and farmers.”

  27. Dr. Edward D. Rockstein says

    Check out the URL for USDA and note the section on history:
    Doc Rock

  28. Doc, you’ve got me all excited, but I’m getting:
    The requested URL /lpa/pubs/fsheet_faq_notice/fs_ahscrapie.html was not found on this server.
    Can you rustle up a link that works?

  29. Ian Myles Slater says

    Trying the USDA home page at and using the search function for “scrapie” turned up a series of notices, and the fact sheet. (The URL for the fact sheet appears to be the same one that didn’t work, so I’m not including it.) Entering usda in a search engine actually worked pretty well, too.
    Statements relevant to comments here concern the manner in which scrapie is spread, approximately how long it has been recognized, and its distribution:
    “The scrapie agent is thought to be spread most commonly from the ewe to her offspring and to other lambs through contact with the placenta and placental fluids. Signs or effects of the disease usually appear 2 to 5 years after the animal is infected but may not appear until much later. Sheep may live 1 to 6 months or longer after the onset of clinical signs, but death is inevitable. The genetics of the sheep affects their susceptibility to scrapie.”
    “First recognized as a disease of sheep in Great Britain and other countries of Western Europe more than 250 years ago, scrapie has been reported throughout the world. Only two countries are recognized by the United States as being free of scrapie: Australia and New Zealand.”
    Unfortunately, the USDA format doesn’t seem to call for citations; I assume that veterinary texts and journals, etc., would supply them — and presumably studies by virologists and epidemiologists would also give precise references. But perhaps not for “merely” linguistic matters….

  30. I wouldn’t bet too much on the idea that feeding animal protein to sheep is an 18th century innovation. If you know it to be true, fair enough, but I’m confident that I’ve read about feeding animals with fish protein much earlier than that.

  31. Dr. Pam, Scrapie Guru says

    I stumbled across this discussion, and found it very interesting and amusing. My mother laments the fact that when she tells her friends about her daughter the veterinarian who works for the goverment that the word “Scrapie” creeps into the discussion (since Scrapie is my primary area of concern), since it does not sound very impressive or sophisticated.
    Some people are confusing the cause of BSE (Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy, aka Mad Cow Disease) and scrapie. The widely accepted theory is that BSE started because in England they were feeding “rendered” (dead, cooked (cooking does not destroy prions), ground to a powder) sheep to cattle, and scrapie made some kind of a species leap, causing this disease that could not be spread from cow to cow, but can cause new-variant Creutzfeld Jakob disease in people who eat said cows. A similar disease called Kuru has been documented in humans where cannibalism/brain-eating ocurred. Scrapie, on the other hand, is passed on by exposure to placenta and birth fluids (as someone pointed out), and has never been shown to affect humans or other livestock. It was imported into the US in the mid 1900’s, and spreads slowly.
    A more ditinguished, but less popular name for scrapie is:
    Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathy of Sheep and Goats.

  32. Thanks for contributing, Dr. Pam — it’s always nice to hear from an expert!

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