In their Curious Objects exhibition Cambridge University Library's English Globe (of 1585-ish) came with an annual maintenance bill which included its scouring, which seems to have involved reapplication of new varnish. Is this practice (in general, among owners of globes) an etymological origin for the corresponding metaphorical phrase scouring the globe/earth, or a coincidence?

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    Nope. The "search for something" sense of scour dates back to the 1300s, and likely arose from a borrowing from Old Norse skyra "rush in" (and is related to shower, as there was a related word in ON meaning "incoming missiles", ultimately from "rain"). The "rub vigorously to remove a coating" sense is a mere century older. Both of these predate widespread use of globes; the earliest extant terrestrial globe dates back to 1492, though there is evidence of earlier globes.
    – Dan Bron
    Jan 11, 2017 at 16:34
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    And, a caveat for future etymological questions: in my experience, the more interesting or "narrative" a proposed etymology is, the less likely it is to be true. This is how folk etymologies get their start and derive their staying power, by being more interesting than the dull "Nah, it was imported from the Vikings centuries before globes were used".
    – Dan Bron
    Jan 11, 2017 at 16:42
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    I think I was reasonably careful to pose it as a question! Jan 11, 2017 at 16:44
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    I think it was a very good question because it is so specific in terms of where the OP saw the meaning where it meant varnish. And then wonders about a general meaning. Unfortunately, the OED costs 300 dollars a year so not all of us can afford it. They should have a special rate for language professionals but unfortunately do not.
    – Lambie
    Jan 11, 2017 at 17:49
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    I would certainly have looked in an OED if I'd had a copy. I used to have access (but not own) one of those giant volumes of n-to-a-page and a magnifying glass, but no more, and used it all the time. I did have a google beforehand, and looked in a couple of online dictionaries with etymologies (which suggested a "rush" etymology, but it wasn't clear to me that this would be the origin as used in the phrase). Tbh, it doesn't seem any more ridiculous that it should have a literal origin than "eat umble pie" or that "brass monkeys" were actually monkeys made of brass. Jan 11, 2017 at 21:25

1 Answer 1


When I hear the term 'scour', I think first of scrubbing (eg 'scouring pads'). The German 'scheuern' is related and also means scrub. To scour a globe likely included scrubbing it before varnishing.

To 'scour the globe' is something like to 'comb the globe', both implying thorough inspection or treatment.

I imagine the semantic similarity between the processes of scrubbing and of searching meticulously is the origin of the phrase 'to scour the globe', just like 'to comb the globe'.

I don't think we can disprove your proposed etymology, but I think mine is more likely.

  • This is the way I've always interpreted it. The act of searching for something is often described as "scouring" -- one might scour the house for that missing shoe. "Scouring the globe" is just a bit of dramatic overstatement.
    – Hot Licks
    Mar 11, 2017 at 13:17
  • We can disprove it from the actual established etymology by paid professional lexicographers which I quoted in my first comment under the question. Scour has been attested in this sense since the 14th century at the latest, and derives from an Old Norse word meaning "to rush in", and the related meaning of "scrub something clean" is actually newer, by a century, than the "search vigorously" sense. So no, both your an OP's proposed etymologies are denied by the facts.
    – Dan Bron
    Mar 11, 2017 at 13:24
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    I'm vehement about this because the Internet is already creating a "post truth" problem, and we don't need to be adding more fuel to that fire with yet more folk etymologies, misattributed quotes, "revised" histories, or "alternative facts". Though given the disease has already infected the highest offices of my nation, I might have to give up my campaign :/
    – Dan Bron
    Mar 11, 2017 at 13:27
  • The etymology at etymonline for scour states that its meaning may have been influenced by the meaning to polish or clean (to scrub). The facts are far from clear here. Multiple hypotheses are possible, truth on this matter is something neither you nor I were able to find in our sources.
    – Brian J
    Mar 11, 2017 at 14:06

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