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I saw the phrase “touched off a scramble” in the article titled “Redefining headphone, with more bass” in the New York Times (November 20) followed by the following copy:

“The rap impresario Dr. Dre is behind Beats, a successful line of expensive headphones that have become a fashion accessory and touched off a scramble in the industry.”

There were other instances of using this phrase, for example:

  • The authorization for establishing three of the satellite offices touched off a scramble among members of Congress who want one in their states or districts. - www.statesman com

  • The prospect of nearly $1 trillion in cuts unnerves military leaders, troubles lawmakers protective of the Pentagon and has touched off a scramble in the defense industry as contractors look to spare their multibillion-dollar weapons programs. – www.thinkownusa.com

There is no entry of “touch off a scramble” in any of Oxford, Cambridge and Merriam-Webster online dictionaries, while Google Ngram Viewer shows the usage of “touched off a scramble” that (suddenly) started in circa 1940, peaked around 1980, and since then is dropping down sharply.

I understand “touch off a scramble” means “cause a commotion or sensation.” Am I right? Is it an idiom, or the simple combination of “touch off” and “scramble”?

Is this expression actually losing vigor as the Google Ngram curve indicates?

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1 Answer

The meaning of the phrase "touch off a scramble" can be found by combining the meanings of "touch off" and "scramble".

Touch off: to provoke or initiate with sudden intensity.

Scramble: a frantic struggle in order to obtain something.

(The definition of scramble is my combination of n.1 and v.intr.2 from the free dictionary, which in turn seems to have been more or less lifted from Merriam-Webster.)

Is this an idiom? I would not expect to see "touch off a scramble" used with any definition of scramble other than this rather specific one, so in that sense it definitely has a more specific meaning than the two phrases "touch off" and "scramble". However, the meaning can be deduced from the two phrases, so I'd say it's not quite an idiom. I'd call it a set phrase.

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Scramble may have been more popular after the Battle of Britain as that was the word used for a fast deployment of fighters. RAF pilots would "scramble" their aircraft. –  Wudang Nov 20 '11 at 16:44
    
@Peter shore. Do you have any idea about comparatively late emergence of the usage of this ‘set phrase’ and its quick dwindling shown by Google Ngram viewer? Does it mean opportunity for using ‘touch off’ and ‘scramble’ combination is limited, and the currency the phrase is short-lived? –  Yoichi Oishi Nov 20 '11 at 21:10
    
@Yoichi: the phrase "touched off" meaning "to cause to explode", started as a literal term used with gunpowder and artillery, and I expect came into much broader use metaphorically because of World War II. See Ngram. So the late emergence came with the emergence of "touched off", and since I expect "touched off" and "scramble" will still retain these meanings for many years, "touched off a scramble" should be understood and occasionally used for a long time. –  Peter Shor Nov 21 '11 at 1:13
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