…we looked around through the detritus, strewn about the room like a hurricane-tattered landscape, and at length discerned a grey cloth heap in the corner in the shape of a cloaked lad. A nudge with the toe provoked a peek from inside the cape, and then the raffish ragamuffin threw off his covering, stood up with a wry smile, adjusted the ragged red scarf at his throat, surveyed the remnants of his uninvited sojourn and, without so much as a “please” or “thank you,” swung himself through the window and on to his next adventure. What a scapegrace!

Ah, scapegrace. The Oxford English Dictionary gives a likeable definition: “A man or boy of reckless and disorderly habits; an incorrigible scamp. Often used playfully.” And the quotations confirm the impression that this is a word of 19th-century literature – an era when scapegraces often showed up in novels, perhaps in a tattered cap and with a hearty “Wotcher, mate!” The word has a certain dash to it, not only through the internal echo of vowels but through the rough beginning – scape so much like scrape, and with its hissing catch and the dangerous echo of escape – followed by the smooth, nay, grace-ful ending, which subsides into another hiss but carries such a smoothness of sense.

And why would we use this word for that kind of person? Well, the idea is that he escapes, or has escaped, the grace of God – in other words, he’s a little heathen, ain’t he. Sounds kind of Huck-Finn-ish, dunnit? Or perhaps Oliver Twistish. So, yes, the scape is taken from escape (which ultimately comes from Latin ex “out of” and cappa “cape, cloak”, suggesting an uncloaking). It is altogether unrelated to landscape (which really ought to be landship if you want it to match the modern forms of its components). And the grace is of course the same grace as in grace of God (and also the grace of my wife when she’s in skates on the ice) – which traces back to Latin gratus “pleasing”, which is also the source for several words for “thanks” (grazie, gracias, etc.).

Just incidentally, scapegrace is also used for birds. I don’t mean female humans – it’s only very rarely used for them – but rather as a name for the red-throated loon, which is seen (among other places) around New England and the Maritimes, including Cape Race in Newfoundland.

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