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What is the origin of scut in scut work?

According to Merriam-Webster,
scut work: routine and often menial labor

Probably from medical argot, scut meaning 'junior intern'
First known use: circa 1962

Usage example:

... women who generally feel that they are second-class citizens in the medical profession -- unappreciated and directed by (mostly male) doctors to perform largely scut work.

This ngram shows that scut work was not used before 1960 when it took hold as medical jargon. It supports the idea that the term was not already in general use and subsequently popularized in hospitals, rather that it originated there.

Scut work

This returns us to the medical coinage. Could it be related to meaning (2) in the OED?

scut
1. the short tail of a hare, rabbit, or deer.
2. (inf. chiefly Irish) a person perceived as foolish, contemptible, or objectionable.

There is another theory that it is derived from Oxford University servants called scouts, but I consider this unlikely given the US origin of scut work.

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Der... I don't think it's likely to derive from anything other than OED:2, which seems about as transparent as any word usage can be. Possibly that definition itself came from association of rabbits with simpletons (rabbits are dumb), or with lowly peasants (who would eat more rabbit than other meat). –  FumbleFingers Jul 28 '11 at 14:23
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4 Answers

up vote 3 down vote accepted

In the Wiktionary scutwork entry, one of the references, Medical meanings: a glossary of word origins, suggests either scuttle, or OE scitan (excrement) as possible origins of the scut in scutwork. I think scitan is plausible; note from the etymology of shit:

Noun use for "obnoxious person" is since at least 1508

Wiktionary also suggests for scut as "contemptible person" that the etymology may be from the obsolete sense of scout, which Etymonline explains:

"to reject with scorn," c.1600, of Scandinavian origin (cf. O.N. skuta, skute "taunt"), probably from a source related to shout.

I think you're probably right that meaning (2) of scut is more closely related to scutwork, but note that calling someone contemptible doesn't have to be unrelated to meaning (1) as in the quotations in Wiktionary, or, for example, this 1907 story:

"Don't understand me?" roared the farmer. "What have you done to my darter, you scut, sitting there preening of yersel, like a silly peacock in the sun?"
The angry man approached the bed swiftly, and, seizing Aubrey's pyjama-clad shoulder in a massive fist, thrust his hairy face within an inch of his victim's nose.
"What have you been doin' to my lass?" he roared again. "Now d'yew onderstand me?"
"W-what has she been telling you?" Aubrey was horribly frightened.
"Summat that made me sware you shouldn't leave this house till you'm man and wife all raight and praper accordin' to law."

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I'm quite impressed with wiktionary's entry actually. I like the quotations. Here are two more, from Ulysses: "God speed you, scut!" and "Mean bloody scut." –  z7sg Ѫ Jul 28 '11 at 21:15
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This is not a definitive answer, because all the sources I checked say the origin is not known. But I suspect it probably comes from scuttle, because doing the dishes is the archetypal form of "scut" work, and as Etymonline shows us:

scuttle (n.) "bucket," O.E. scutel "dish, platter," from L. scutella "serving platter," dim. of scutra "flat tray, dish," perhaps related to scutum "shield" (see hide (n.1)). A common Gmc. borrowing from Latin (cf. O.N. skutill, M.Du. schotel, O.H.G. scuzzila, Ger. Schüssel). Meaning "basket for sifting grain" is attested from mid-14c.; sense of "bucket for holding coal" first recorded 1849.

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I think the ngram I've posted in the question goes against this theory because scut work only really exists from 1960 onwards. –  z7sg Ѫ Jul 28 '11 at 20:32
    
+1 I strongly suspect it came from coal scuttle. –  Brock Adams Mar 17 '13 at 10:07
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"Scut work" was in use at least as early as 1950. From The Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine, Volume 22:

... menial tasks commonly known as the "scut work."

Given the general manners of the time, it seems unlikely that this would be used too pejoratively.


James Joyce's, Finnegans Wake (1939) also refers to a character as a "scutfrank" -- which has been interpreted to mean someone who does menial tasks.

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"Some common unfinished task".

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1  
Is this a definition from a dictionary? Why else did you use inverted commas? As it is, you haven't provided an answer for its origins. –  Mari-Lou A Aug 23 '13 at 22:27
    
@Mari-LouA It looks as if the quote marks were added by the editor. The author also suggested the (alleged) origin by capitalising the initial letters of each word. While the author has provided no substantiation for this alleged origin, I think your last 2 sentences should be aimed at the editor! –  TrevorD Aug 23 '13 at 23:57
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protected by RegDwigнt Aug 23 '13 at 20:04

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