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Words: scratch, n.

IT WAS a fine malt which made Dr Wordsmith lose his direction and wander from Miles Kington's column to the - er - tighter confines of this one (that's synergy); as he lolled towards a Sevres vase, he clawed his scalp and burbled something about the contradiction between being up to scratch and having to start from scratch.

Scratch, a medieval merging of scrat and cratch, has many meanings. Among them, scratch is the position from which somebody starts in a race if he has no handicap, while the other scratch is a crease or border - in particular, as noted by Brewer's but not the Oxford English Dictionary, the 1839 Prize Ring Rules meant that a boxer was deemed to be knocked out if he could not get to a scratched line in the middle of the ring.