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My wife uses her nails to “gently scratch” our 3-year-old son’s back for ~15 mins right before falling sleep. He likes it a lot. There’s a word škrabkať  in my native language (Slovak), and I was wondering if there is a similar one in English. Do we scratch our children? Doesn’t it sound weird?

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I tried to come up with an alternate word, but without much success. I considered caress, but that seems as likely to be misinterpreted as scratch; I think I prefer "gentle scratch" over "caress" – even more than "caress with the fingertips." By the way, even though scratch, by itself, usually has a somewhat rough connotation in English, that's not so much the case when you talk about scratching on the back. In fact, the idiom you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours refers to two people helping either other out. –  J.R. Oct 12 '12 at 17:40
    
I concur with J.R.: "she scratched his back" evokes pretty much what you are describing without any further context. "She scratched his face" would need further context to be sure, but one would expect this to be violent. Perhaps because the back is an inconvenient place for the individual to reach himself (?) –  horatio Oct 12 '12 at 20:32

2 Answers 2

It isn’t official, but the verb scritch is sometimes used to mean a light, perhaps even a friendly, scratching, as if responding to an itch. Think of it as a combination of scratch + itch = scritch.

Considering that the old meaning of scritch as a synonym for screech or shriek is now considered archaic, this neologism seems to fill an ecological niche in the language. This use is reasonably well known, enough so as to find its way into the crowd-sourced Urban Dictionary.

The prior use of scritch as shriek goes back all the way to the 12th century, extending through the 20th. Here are the OED’s first and last two citations:

  • A. 1250 Owl & N. 223 (Jesus MS.) ― Þu scrichest & yollest to þine fere, Þat hit is gryslich to ihere.
  • 13·· Seuyn Sag. (W.) 1290 ― Loude he gan to crie and skriche [rime diche].
  • 1944 W. de la Mare Coll. Rhymes & Verses 70 ― Down to the shore skipped Lallerie, His parrot on his thumb, And the twain they scritched in mockery.
  • 1957 H. Nicolson Journey to Java v. 88 ― The evening breeze stirs the tree above us and we hear the keel birds scritching.

I think using scritch for the sort of thing you asked about is pretty normal today. As mentioned below in comments, Wiktionary mentions that scritch can mean “to scratch an itch”. There also appear to be counter-cultural usages with which I was not previously familiar (and am still largely unclear on). This online source, the “Cat Dictionary”, offers as an example:

The cat has an itch and is scritching it.

Miriam Moss has an amusing children’s book named Scritch Scratch, which is about head lice, of all scritchy-scratchy things! The Amazon description is:

Miriam Moss and Delphine Durand tackle the uncomfortable issue of head lice in this straightforward and very silly picture book. Miss Calypso and her class become the unsuspecting hosts of a family of those pesky parasites, but fortunately, the principal knows how to handle them. In a surprise, romantic ending, the head lice end up being one of the best things to ever happen to Miss Calypso.

The use of Scritch Scratch, or of scritchy-scratch(y), seems to follow the rule for reduplicative freezes that John Lawler mentions in his answer to this question. Whether this is the ultimate source of the contemporary slang use of scritch as related to scratch is hard to pin down for certain, though. It might also be one of those portmanteaux that show up so often, so scratch + itch = scritch. Or as often happens in these cases, it could simply be several things working together to converge on a reinforced sense.

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+1 Also has an entry in Wiktionary. –  coleopterist Oct 12 '12 at 17:47
    
Hm, the word "scritch" isn't in LDOCE nor in The Oxford Dictionary that came with my iPhone. Is it used in everyday life? Do parents scritch their children? –  Rudolf Adamkovic Oct 12 '12 at 18:34
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Anecdotal, but on multiple occasions I got a request to give a scritchy-scratch to a friend's back. I declined, of course, because the word wasn't in the OED. (: –  Zairja Oct 12 '12 at 18:58
    
Take care with how you use "scritch" as well. In context its meaning would be clear, but the term also has a pretty strong (in popular usage on the internet at least) connection to furry culture. –  Marcus_33 Oct 12 '12 at 19:10
    
@tchrist I'd link it but I still haven't figured out the proper format for that in a comment. It's people who dress and behave as anthropomorphic animals and is frequently sexual in nature. –  Marcus_33 Oct 12 '12 at 19:12

My children used to say

Itch me!

See transitive verb, definition 2 here

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