Daily Archives: February 6, 2010


Here’s another one of those bunchy scr words (e.g., scrimp). It may bring to mind some other images that would be a bit O.T.; one may even think of delicious food (with or without crumbs) without being bumptious. It can be given a military drumming sound with a roll of the /r/, and it also has echoes of scram, and those work well enough with its senses.

I should say first that this word was brought to my mind by the title of a guy at another company who I’m working with on a project: Scrum Master. I had not seen this term before. It turns out that scrum (often capped, Scrum, and occasionally needlessly all-capped, SCRUM) is, in this usage, a software development process wherein cross-functional software development teams work in defined phases called sprints and have daily brief meetings as well. There’s a lot more to it, including calling clients and managers chickens and the developers pigs, but I leave it to the interested reader to look it up for details.

The term scrum was borrowed for this approach from rugby because in rugby the whole team “tries to go the distance as a unit, passing the ball back and forth.” I do feel obliged to point out that, in rugby, scrum refers not per se to the cooperation of the team or to, say, a huddle, but rather to the mayhem and mêlée between the teams. From that it has gained the more general sense “a confused, noisy throng,” as the OED puts it.

And where did rugby get the term? Well, it’s short for scrummage. The other version of this word that is used commonly in games such as American football is scrimmage. Are you thinking “Hey, -age is a suffix, so how can scrummage be the source of scrum rather than the other way around?” Well, the -age noun suffix is a reinterpretation, to suit the sense, of an original -ish. But wait! Scrimish is not “like a scrim”; it in turn is an alteration of skirmish, taking on that bunchy scr.

We know what a skirmish is, of course. It’s a small, disorganized engagement between two groups of troops in a war – like rugby, but with more (or maybe less) blood. But where does the word skirmish come from? Well, not “like a skirm”; it’s from French escarmoche, which is from Italian scaramuccia. We don’t know where that term came from, but we do know where else it’s gone: it was applied as a name to a roguish clown in Commedia dell’Arte. And that name was also borrowed into French as Scaramouche.

Scaramouche, Scaramouche… I will have to ask my colleague: Will you do the fandango? (If he finds it very very frightening, or moves from rhapsody to protocol, he may pale in response…)