Japan Scrambles Jets in Island Dispute with Russia (headline)

Scramble here has the meaning of "rapidly take an aircraft to flight", carrying the tone of preparing for combat. Etymonline says that it was first recorded in 1940 with the RAF during WWII, but no actual origin is offered.

Does anyone know the etymology of this usage?

  • It probably originated as a radio code -- stuff like "the orange is sweet/sour" to mean good or bad conditions. Scramble was at that period just a verb meaning what one does to produce scrambled eggs, which involves mixing things up together briskly, then heating them while continuing to move them around. Not a bad metaphor for launching planes for combat, in a hurry and often under fire. Feb 7, 2013 at 22:46
  • 2
    It also works because it matches the phonosemantics of skr- words. Feb 7, 2013 at 22:48
  • @JohnLawler: Good explanation, but 'Scramble was at that period only [transitive]'? To clamber, crawl or jump over difficult ground (OED) is 16th century, and a better source of metaphor, I would have thought. Feb 8, 2013 at 0:02
  • Certainly not only. And another coherent choice of metaphor, certainly. That's an intransitive use of the same verb, and scrambled eggs is probably where it was most encountered in WWII aerodromes. However, the fighter sense can be either intransitive or transitive; the squadron can scramble, or they can scramble the squadron. Feb 8, 2013 at 0:58
  • @JohnLawler the book I cite as an example of the sense "to move quickly" was popular enough to be adapted in 1955, 1968 and 1984, and ngrams shows (scrambled out of + had to scramble + scramble up + scrambled up) beating "scrambled eggs". While scrambled eggs are certainly popular, I don't think we can argue that the intransitive sense was in any way obscure.
    – Jon Hanna
    Feb 8, 2013 at 1:07

1 Answer 1


Scramble meaning "moving quickly and frantically" is much older, as in

When I saw the coffin I knew that I was respited, for, as I judged, there was space between it and the wall behind enough to contain my little carcass; and in a second I had put out the candle, scrambled up the shelves, half-stunned my senses with dashing my head against the roof, and squeezed my body betwixt wall and coffin. (J. Meade Falkner, Moonfleet, 1898).

Which quote I found via wiktionary, and then fact-checked against the Project Gutenberg copy of the book.

The etymonline link you link to gives this as being from the 1580s, (and predates it being specifically used of a way to cook eggs) and suggests it may be a corruption of scrabble.

It's not hard to see how a word meaning "move quickly and frantically" could gain a specific air force meaning among the RAF in the 1940s. The Battle of Britain started in July 1940, and the struggle for air-superiority over Britain continued until 1941 with the most intense fighting in the early stages (the British consider the battle as having been until the end of October 1940, the Germans until 1941 when air operations were focused on the Eastern Front, and Churchill made his speech about "The Few" in August 1940).

For this reason, The Few regularly had to scramble in the earlier sense with great frequency. Previous air battles where not as long-lasting, or had depending on aircraft that took longer to get into the air. That they called this scrambling and scramble developed a sense specifically relating to getting planes into the air is not surprising.

It's perhaps also worth considering that the procedures behind getting battle-ready planes into the air and ready to engage are different now as to then. There was likely more of a scramble in the old sense to a scramble in the new sense then than now.

There are two other words worth considering here.

Scarper is informal British English for "leave quickly", originally slang, and either from Italian scappare (escape), Cockney "Scapa Flow" (go), or a mixture of both.

Scram is similarly American English for "leave quickly", and also slang. It could itself come from scramble, or from German schramm. Some will tell you that it's an acronym of "Safety Cut Rope Axe Man" or "Safety Control Rod Axe Man" as it relates to nuclear reactors, but this is a bakcronym. This in itself points to a German origin, as while German-based slang was popular in the 1920s, it was less so in the 1940s for obvious reasons (the US Army slang FUBAR might be from furchtbar, with the well-known definition being a similar backronym for similar reasons).

I don't think that scarper or scram are the origin of scramble in this sense; I think it's from the earlier sense of scramble as I gave above, but I do think they could have influenced that rather than another choice (hurry, fly, get into that f'ing sky before Jerry blows us to bits) being the term that became common and developed an Air-Force specific meaning. This would presumably relate to the phonosemantics John Lawler mentions above.

  • Great analysis, thanks, the quote from Moonfleet is perfect.
    – Fraser Orr
    Feb 8, 2013 at 2:07

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.