While throwing together some prompts for a writing challenge on Writing.CD last night, I wrote this line:

[My] hands scrambled for a hold on the rough rock.

This morning, while looking back at it, I thought "Huh. Is it actually "scrambled", or should that be "scrabbled"? I seem to recall seeing "scrabbled"."

So, turning to Google, I did a quick search for the line "scrabbled for a hold".

Search results for "scrabbled for a hold": About 7,440 results

And then, to compare, a search for "scrambled for a hold".

Search results for "scrambled for a hold": About 13,600 results

...so it looks like both are in use, but "scrambled" is slightly more popular?

Except that Google Ngrams shows a different story.

graph showing "scrambled for a hold" vs "scrabbled" for a hold over time. "scrambled" makes an appearance in about 1907, while "scrabbled" waits until the late 1930s. However, "scrabbled" is much more popular now

The graph shows that even though "scrambled for a hold" makes an appearance nearly thirty years before "scrabbled for a hold" shows up, by the 1950s "scrabbled" has outstripped "scrambled" and is more in-use.

But... which one is actually correct? Does it matter which one popped up first, or that the other one became more popular? Which one is actually more accurate?

  • 1
    Definitely not scrambled. Scrabbled refers to a digging or clawing action. Both scrambled and scrabbled are usually applied to a whole person, not just the hands. They imply an action driven by a state of mind and don't seem to be idiomatic when disembodied as in your examples. – Phil Sweet May 7 '20 at 10:16

Both are correct and are synonyms in the usage here considered. Both are traced back to a much more ancient period than that shown by the ngrams, since "scrabble" was acknowledged in the mid 17th century and "scramble" in the late 16th.

(SOED) scrabble [MDu schrabbelen …] 3 v.i. Scramble on hands and feet; stumble or struggle along; Freq. foll. by up. M17.

(SOED) scramble [ imitation: cf. CRAMBLE, SCAMBLE] 1 v.i. Stand up, get into a specified place or position, by the struggling use of the hands and the feet; make one's way by clambering, crawling, etc. over steep or rough ground; move hastily or awkwardly into a specified place or position. L16.

Popularity is very relative criterion but there is a tendency driving people to opt for the popular; I wouldn't say that scramble is more accurate but that it appears to carry more connotations in the way of expressing the idea of a struggling with one's body.

  • 1
    I see "scrambled" as suggesting the hands - or people or whatever - fell over each other racing or otherwise competing for a hold. I think "scrabbled" suggests the hands - or people or whatever - struggled for a hold. Both imply struggle but - albeit tenuously and only when there's a choice, in scrambling the struggle is prolly against other competitors; in scrabbling, not necessarily against anything but the terrain. – Robbie Goodwin May 7 '20 at 22:37
  • @RobbieGoodwin That seems right; there is this old definition: "to claw or rake together". According to what I could find the idea in "scrabble" would essentially be that of a struggle against the terrain, I agree, but even in that limited domain "scrabble" is apparently not much used nowadays. – LPH May 7 '20 at 23:01
  • Really? I suggest "scrabble" is used nowadays. In many a field of fact or fiction where people compete, they often "scrabble" for advantage, for dominance, for power or anything remotely like those. – Robbie Goodwin May 11 '20 at 22:14
  • @RobbieGoodwin Strangely enough, a search on Google Books reveals that no instance is found of the verb and that the literature is absolutely swamped by the noun, which is invariably the noun of the game. – LPH May 11 '20 at 22:27
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    @Robbie Goodwin. Yes, I think both are acceptable, and while there is broadening the extent of which dictionaries only hint at, to me 'scrabble' strongly suggests 'scrattin' about (in the loose/angular terrain)' whereas 'scramble' strongly suggests more whole-body exertion, and suggests a scrum. – Edwin Ashworth Jun 6 '20 at 11:12

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