If you want to get an idea of what adolescents think a word sounds like it should mean, go to You may get real definitions there, but you will certainly also get various instances where some juvenile has seen the word and decided to make his mark on it like a dog pees on a fire hydrant. The Urban Dictionary definitions for scumble are quite unsurprising:

1. “To unintentionally trip or fall headlong into something disgusting (stumble + scum).” (9 thumbs up)

2. “The words fumble and scramble together … Only happens in football (or Pro Evo) when somebody ‘fumbles’ the ball in the box and when there is a ‘scramble’ for the ball so a scumble is formed” (11 thumbs down)

3. “Scum + crumble. Scumbles are gross (unknown) crumbs of goo. Unlike a cookie crumb, which isn’t disgusting.” (2 up, 14 down)

Now, of course, among adults, one might, on seeing a new word, consider the context and perhaps even look it up. But even then it is true that with a word such as this one, the form of it may remain as a sort of surface layer that is only half-scraped away to reveal the lexicalized sense. The form is, after all, fairly obtrusive.

There are several parts that give the phonaesthetic impression with this word. There’s the sc (/sk/) onset, which may connect to surfaces that can be scraped, or the scraper or the result – skin, skim, scalp, scrape, scale, scalpel, scallop, sculpt – and the tumbling, crumbling, rumbling, rambling /mbl/ ending, with the dullness of the mid-central vowel in the middle. Beyond that, it has the echoes of scum and stumble, as the kids say, plus fumble, scramble, crumble, and assorted others that it somewhat kinda resembles. For me, the scum echo is not as strong as those of humble and stumble and crumble. But your results may vary.

As it happens, scum appears to be the source, along with the frequentative le suffix. Scum (verb) means to skim the scum (noun) off the surface of something. (Scum (noun) has always meant what it means.) But what scumble refers to is a painterly technique whereby a layer of opaque or semi-opaque paint (usually lighter in colour) is scraped or dry-brushed thin over the layer below to create a softening blending effect. (See a demonstration at

You’ll often see this word in inflected forms: scumbled or scumbling. You’ll usually see it in literal use. But it has a certain mouthfeel to it, a certain texture of sound, that invites broader, more figurative use in literary fiction as well. A Nabokov might use it, with his feel for the lusciousness of the language: “The summer tan … would scumble, I knew, the liver spots on my temples.” (Look at the Harlequins) Or perhaps Philip Pullman (The Amber Spyglass): “The moon was brilliant, the path a track of scumbled footprints in the snow, the air cutting and cold.” Or, or, or. If you write fiction, the odds are now pretty good you’ll use it sometime, too. It’s a word as delicious as shortbread, and yet with that tangy pong of paint: a gallery opening right there on your page, giving a glow with your story shining shyly through.

2 responses to “scumble

  1. Very interesting. I’ve read The Amber Spyglass, but I don’t remember noticing it there. I just knew scumble as the ridiculously strong apple brandy brewed by Nanny Ogg in Terry Pratchett’s books.

    • After posting the article, I thought, “Argh! I forgot to mention Nanny Ogg’s stuff!” I was wondering whether I should just try to slip it in quietly (I sometimes add new material the morning after), but since you’ve caught me out on it, I’ll keep it in the comments. Anyway, that allows me just to quote the Discworld & Pratchett Wiki directly:

      Scumble is made from apples. Well, mainly apples, which in no way guarantees a low alcohol content. Scumble is drunk in thimblefuls, is strong enough to be used for cleaning spoons, and should not be put in a metal container or allowed to come into contact with water. Someone who can drink a lot of scumble all at once without ill effects is probably not really human (see Mort). Authentic scumble is made in Lancre, in a secret still owned and operated by Nanny Ogg. Nanny welcomed King Verence II‘s decree of prohibition, as she reckoned it would leave her with no competitors.

      She does have many small competitors, most using freeze-distillation like some Applejack. Other producers ferment pure apple juice and freeze high-proof popskull out of it, a notorious beverage down into the plains. Nanny Ogg will only list her ingredients as “apples, mostly”; her brandy manages to be much more potent than normal brandy. A well-ordered still can increase the proof and eliminate unpleasant by-products, and a few minor additions from a Witch’s pharmacopoeia can work wonders. Nanny Ogg’s prowess with alcoholic beverages is well-known — as is her product, known everywhere that men fall over backwards into ditches as ‘suicider‘.

      The best apples for making scumble are: Lancre Blackheart, the Golden Disagreeable, and the Green Billet.

      Related Roundworld drinks : Calvados (strong apple brandy distilled in Normandy), Apple Brandy and Scrumpy (which have long been produced in Somerset), and Applejack (made in North America).

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