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None of the regular sources list itch as a transitive verb meaning to scratch. Yet I hear it used that way in American English all the time. One of the British mods of this site says the usage occurs in British English as well.

There's even a question on this site about this usage that I myself answered nine years ago, which provides further evidence that such a usage exists.

The verb itself in its main meaning has been in use for at least a thousand years.

Middle English icchen, from Old English giccan "to itch," from West Germanic *jukkjan (source also of Middle Dutch jöken "to itch," Old High German jucchen, German jucken).
Etymonline

Given that itch meaning to scratch appears now both in AmE and BrE, there must be some logical progression to the transitive usage. What I want to know is how (and possibly when) this usage came into being. Is it because itch ends on the same phoneme that scratch does? Is it baby talk that gained currency?

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    My gut feel is that it's partly "baby talk" (incl. facetiously) and partly the fact that American Anglophones in particular include a fairly high proportion of people for whom English isn't actually their "primary" language. (But I think it'll be a long time before itch that scratch becomes as common as scratch that itch! :) Apr 9, 2020 at 14:22
  • @FumbleFingers: Hey, it happens in your country too. And don't look now, but you still have a lot of people "for whom English isn't actually their 'primary' language." What do you think Brexit is really all about?
    – Robusto
    Apr 9, 2020 at 15:23
  • I don't think Brexit is "all about" anything as specific as how people react to neologistic usages (innit? :) I can't think of another example offhand, but aren't there various other slangy / idiomatic usages that turn on transposing / blurring the distinction between "agent / patient, subject / object"? Making this a specific type of "semantic creep" that starts as cant/slang (implementing that transposition), but might sometimes become mainstream usage eventually? Apr 9, 2020 at 15:57
  • I'll teach / learn you a lesson! comes to mind, but it's not the most relevant example. Apr 9, 2020 at 16:24
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    @Conrado: Lehren and lernen may look similar, but that's where the resemblance ends.
    – Robusto
    Apr 14, 2020 at 2:15

1 Answer 1

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You note the Germanic origins, and in German, (https://en.bab.la/dictionary/german-english/kratzen) You will note that jucken and krazten are both used.

That said, it is likely to be a transitional effect in which an assumed meaning is attached to the word.

The earliest recorded use (Oxford English Dictionary) is in the meaning of:

1. intransitive. To have or feel irritation of the skin, such as causes an inclination to scratch the part affected: said of the part; also of the person affected. Also impersonal, it itches, there is an itching.

α.

c1000 Sax. Leechd. III. 50 Wið giccendre wombe.

[...]

1875 B. Jowett in tr. Plato Dialogues (ed. 2) IV. 17 Socrates dilates on the pleasures of itching and scratching.

1897 T. C. Allbutt et al. Syst. Med. III. 343 The cracks often itch in a most troublesome way.

An additional meaning appeared later

3. transitive. To cause to itch. Also reflexive and figurative.

1577 R. Stanyhurst Hist. Irelande iii. 90/2 in R. Holinshed Chron. I It may be, that..I shal be able like a flesh worme to itch the bodie of his Kingdome, and force him to scratch deepelie.

[...]

1951 L. MacNeice tr. J. W. von Goethe Faust ii. i. 171 The dice already itch me in my pocket.

1954 S. Beckett Waiting for Godot ii. 46 Then I can keep it [sc. a hat]. Mine irked me... How shall I say?..It itched me.

In the quotes of 1951 and 1954, you can see the possible understanding of "to itch" as "to irritate" or "to scratch." It is probably this that led to the confusion, and basic misuse.

We see similar misuses become used in "lend" and "borrow" and "fulsome" and "fullest"

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  • How up-to-date is the OED material, if you please? Apr 9, 2020 at 14:47
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    I'm not seeing a way to interpret those quotes to have "itch" mean "scratch", only "irritate".
    – Spencer
    Apr 9, 2020 at 15:10
  • @ Edwin Ashworth - there is a quote given for 1973. The 1989 edition has the same 1973 entry.
    – Greybeard
    Apr 9, 2020 at 16:42
  • @Spencer - the essence of the general misunderstanding/misuse of "itch" is the idea that something that irritates/scratches in a tickling manner is itself an itch. I am taking "scratch" as a movement across the skin, which is possible to see in the quotations. The other point seems to be that although you, reasonably, do not see it, others seem to. Hence "I itched the mosquito bite."
    – Greybeard
    Apr 9, 2020 at 16:49

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