Letter: `Scrooching' with Mark Twain

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The Independent Online
Sir: Ann Hales (Letters, 1 July) asks after the origin of "to cut corners", in your earlier headline "Nemesis of the golden boy who cut too many corners".

The OED documents the phrase from 1869, when Mark Twain described a gondolier who "cuts a corner so smoothly, now and then, or misses another gondola by such an imperceptible hair-breadth that I feel myself `scrooching', as the children say, just as one does when a buggy wheel grazes his elbow" (Innocents Abroad, chapter 23). The original use was, therefore, "to pass round a corner as closely as possible"; the modern extended use is recorded from the latter end of the 19th century.

"Scrooching", by the way (also scrouging, skrowdging, scroodging, etc), means "to squeeze close; to crouch or bend", and in Twain's context "to make one's body smaller or less conspicuous"; nowadays it's largely restricted to American English regional use, though an apparently related term appears in Spenser's Faerie Queene (1590).

Golden boy achieved popularity in the 1930s, as the title of Clifford Odets' Golden Boy: a Play in Three Acts (Random House, New York).

Nemesis predates the United States. As the Greek personification of retribution or vengeance she was well-established in Elizabethan England.


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