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The slang term "scrub", when referred to a person, can mean several things. It seems like the original usage as an adjective is someone who is not good at something - video games, sports, etc. I am interested to know if the first time it was used to refer to a "guy who thinks he's cool but he's not" was in the TLC song "No Scrubs". I am not familiar with the term before that and it seems like an isolated usage.

  • Not really an answer, but I've been reading a lot of Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin series lately (written ca 1970, set ca 1800) and scrub is used frequently to mean "a dishonorable man". This is historical fiction, but O'Brian's writing is extensively researched and he is very keen on accuracy, so I would expect this is backed by contemporary evidence (but I don't know for sure). – Nate Eldredge Jun 3 '14 at 6:04
  • Hmm yeah I think "a dishonorable man" is closer than the etymonline reference discussed below. Maybe someone can dig up an authoritative reference. – cduston Jun 3 '14 at 14:48
  • A scrub refers to a scullion. In the army, the idiots and weaklings are the ones who take care of the dishes. They are the scrubs. – Emma Dash Jun 3 '14 at 23:42
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    i think a good rule of thumb is that if you heard a strange word or usage in a modern song, chances are the song did not originate it. – user428517 Dec 2 '14 at 22:42
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I vividly remember the term scrubs being used in the late 1960s in high-school sports (in Texas) to refer to the players who barely made the team and would be extremely unlikely ever to appear in an actual game that wasn't already a blow-out win or loss. Often scrubs were underclassmen who were included on the team to get seasoning and on the off-chance that they might develop into useful players in future years when some of the current players would have graduated.

Robert Chapman & Barbara Kipfer, Dictionary of American Slang, third edition (1995), has this entry for the noun scrub:

scrub 1 n by 1589 A contemptible person =BUM [example omitted] 2 n by 1892 An athlete who is not on the first or varsity team; a lowly substitute {ultimately fr. scrub, "shrub, a low, stunted tree"; the quoted 1990s teenager use is an interesting survival or perhaps a revival based on the second sense}

J.S. Farmer & W.E. Henley, Slang & Its Analogues (1903) lists these known meanings of the word:

SCRUB subs. (old colloquial).—Any mean, or ill-conditioned person, or thing ; as adj. = paltry, mean ; also SCRUBBED, and SCRUBBY ; SCRUB-RACE = a contest between contemptible animals ; after FARQUHAR and The Beaux' Strategem (1707). —B. E., GROSE. [Examples omitted.] 2. (American Univ.).—A servant.

As late as Chapman & Kipfer, Dictionary of American Slang, fourth edition (2007), there is no suggestion that a scrub "thinks he's cool but he's not." Indeed, Tom Dalzell, Flappers 2 Rappers: American Youth Slang (1996) gives a decade-by-decade account of why any pretension to coolness is exceedingly unscrublike:

[College slang circa 1900:] scrub A second-rate person

[Youth slang of the 1930s:] scrub 1. A poor student 2. A member of the second team

[The 1970s and 1980s:] scrub A younger person, perhaps a freshman

[Hiphop era (1980s and beyond):] scrub Someone with no talent.

I can imagine someone who thinks he or she is cool—and who perhaps really is cool—denigrating someone else who allegedly thinks he or she is cool, by calling that person a scrub; but arguing that a scrub is fundamentally someone who thinks he or she is cool but actually isn't makes no more sense than saying that a square is fundamentally someone who thinks he or she is a trendsetter but actually isn't. In both cases the assertion goes against generations of contrary usage. In the case of scrub, the essence of the insult relates to the scrub's irrelevance and talentlessness, not to the person's false sense of coolness.

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  • You are being pedantic here. "A guy who thinks he's fly and is also known as a busta" is just part of an extended example given by TLC, not a definition. The example continues, "...always talkin' 'bout what he wants and just sits on his broke ass." They are speaking of the qualities of this particular scrub. It is also arguable from the rest of song that TLC's use of the word is closer to "a contemptible person." – Nimrod Mar 27 '17 at 3:44
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The Oxford English Dictionary has a few relevant definitions:

  • "A mean insignificant fellow", dated to 1589

  • "A hard-worked servant", dated to 1707

  • "A player belonging to a weaker team", dated to 1892

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Etymonline.con has this to say about scrub. see scrub(n.1)

The second paragraph seems to say the way TLC used it (which I believe means a man without wealth) was first documented in 1709, slightly before the popular R&B hip-hip combo became successful.

Etymonline doesn't have a reference for scrubber, that would be nice to know as well

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  • Well this is a nice answer, but I'm not sure I agree with your interpretation of that second sentence having the right meaning. Excerpt from the song: "A scrub is a guy who thinks he's fly, and is also known as a buster. Always talkin' about what wants, and just sits on his broke ass". Maybe we can't get too serious here, but I think the meaning includes some kind of false presentation, and not just a man without wealth (which your etymonline reference clearly includes). – cduston Jun 3 '14 at 14:44
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    @cduston I suspect serious regarding the lyrical choices of TLC is stretching a point. TLC may well include a sense of false representation but I think their basic point is If you got no money, you won't get this honey as shown by the lyrics ...broke ass and If you don't have a car and you're walking and If you live at home wit' your momma which are clear indicators of a lack of 'G' (referenced by Ms L.E.Lopez in her Rap-solo) and compounded by the rather blunt Wanna get with me with no money, Oh no I don't want no (oh) – Frank Jun 3 '14 at 15:07
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    I know we are not supposed to add comments of the form "gee great comment" but seriously - utilizing an air of scholarship around TLC lyrics makes your comment priceless, and convinces me of your answer. Well done! – cduston Jun 4 '14 at 5:31
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    @cduston An air of scholarship ! Nothing to do with my M.A. in TLC lyrics; the meanings and the wider applicability to the empowerment of young women in the last decade of the 20th century? ;) – Frank Jun 4 '14 at 5:45
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It comes from the Nintendo 64 game "The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask", where somebody begins the game as a Deku Scrub, after being turned into one very early in the story. Players who were not able to reach a point where they would return to their human form would be a) terrible at the game and b) scrubs forever.

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    Sorry, the song (1999) predates your video game (2000). – cduston Dec 16 '14 at 17:06

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