Over supper I was lamenting to Aina how much more bother it is to put together a paper in linguistics than it was when I was a drama grad student. Drama, at the PhD level, is like English or history: you read some books, do some historical research, think some. As a bonus you can even go to see a show or two. Then you write it up. But linguistics! To do a paper in linguistics you also have to go collect a bunch of data from speakers or texts and then code it all, analyze it all, just a whole bunch of tedious segmenting and entering into spreadsheets and calculating and so on. And then you think and write. In short, the real difference is all the time-consuming scut work you have to do.
Scut work. Such a good term. It sounds sort of like a word a camp counsellor would use, or some 20-year-old who’s supervising a bunch of 18-year-olds. Scut work is the sort of stuff you do for pittances when you’re young. Scut work is also the sort of stuff you still probably have to do more of than you expected when you’re older, but the pay is better. And if you’ve climbed up the ladder a little you can foist a lot of it on your juniors.
Scut work is work for scum. It’s the kind of work you cut and scoot – or cuss about if you can’t. You may think your day is empty and you’re Scot-free, but no, there will be sweeping up of assorted remains, scat of customers, flotsam and jetsam of the day’s dreary traffic, tightening of the loose and loosening of the tight, and unclogging of the foul (o most unkindest scut of all). Scut work is the kind of work you can do while listening to the most mind-destroying music you have. In fact, it practically demands it, or you’ll be too skittish.
Scut is like a loose little cut-off bit, perhaps an end of a piece of wood left on the floor in a construction site or theatre shop. Its sound is broken off before it reaches its end: it slides in on /s/ like a broom sweeping, snaps at /k/, gives the shortest, most indistinct vowel possible, and then before you can even get your tongue to touch on the /t/ your glottis stops the sound: enough of this, I’m done. (If you actually fully crisply pronounce the /t/, you are not likely the sort of person who is in any way accustomed to doing scut work – or speaking of it.)
Whence comes this scut word? From the same place scut work comes from: around. Just sort of came up and whatever, can’t ignore it forever. There are actually several scut words. One means ‘short’ or ‘cut off’, like a skirt (or, better, a cutty sark). One refers to a tail that is short and upright, as on a rabbit or deer. Neither of these seems to be related to our work word.
Then there is a Scots word for a scoundrel, a contemptible person – when I look at the OED illustrative quotes, it occurs to me that some current Scots speakers might use a similar-sounding but rather ruder word (if you have seen Trainspotting, think of Begbie’s vocabulary – although Begbie himself is rather a scut). It may be from that scut that we get the scut of scut work. Or it may not be. We’re not entirely sure. Finding out involves a lot of lexical historical dumpster diving, poring over old texts and making notes. Yet another kind of linguistic scut work.