A word that runs on the tongue like a hand going across a rough surface with little snags: it has a sound of sliding friction at start and finish, but in between catches on a point, then rubs against a little knob. Looking at it, too, you see a smooth top but for one scraping point up in the middle. This word does not lack for unpleasant echoes: not only the obvious scab and scar, but resonances of stab and other wounding words that end in voiced stops: dig, snag, grab, jab, squib, crab, and so on. But it also draws on the full strength of that expansive a, which is like a blast of hot, dry air through a word – and that may be fragrant, even flamboyant air, as in “fabulous,” or it may be a jet of sour gas, as in “nasty.” This word comes from Latin scabere, meaning to scrape or scratch, and first described a rough surface that does just that. But it has come to be more common in reference to writings, wit, and other words – specifically ones that are caustic, harsh, abusive, abrasive, repulsive… ones that would leave a scab (even though “scab” is not cognate).

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