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Saturday, 26 September 2015

The nature of a scuff

We sometimes hear people speaking of seizing somebody or something by the scruff of the neck, but if we want to be fully correct, the word is 'scuff'.

The origin of this is obscure, but 'scruff' can also be used for scurf, through a change called 'metathesis', which is simply a fancier way of saying 'transposition'. And since scurf can be a thin coating or layer on something, perhaps this is why we speak of the scruff of the neck.

Scuff is also what we do when we rub our feet, and this is a satisfying word, because it is also onomatopoeic, imitating the sound we make as we scuff our way along, but once again, the derivation appears to be from 'scurf' as our feet lightly graze the surface they walk over. If something has been given a rough treatment, we may say that the surface is scuffed, but there is a cure for a floor that is scuffed: it needs to be buffed.

The footwear scuffs are rather unsightly items on the feet. Once, the word meant a pair of soles with just a strap across the front of the foot, but more recently, it became one of the names given to items variously called jandals, thongs, flip-flops, zoris or scuffs, in various parts of the Pacific, while in Australia, they are sometimes known jokingly as Japanese gumboots.

For formal occasions, Australians decorate their footwear with barnacles.
The clearest derivation is that for the zori, since this is just the Japanese name for the rubber-soled, rubber-strapped footwear, while 'flip-flop' and 'scuff' refer to the noises these items make as somebody walks in them. The name 'jandal' is applied in a few places, New Zealand among them, and it is short for 'Japanese sandal'.

The word 'thong' is one of those delightful terms that reminds us of how we are separated by a common language. Americans, and much of the rest of the English-speaking world, regard a thong as a skimpy item of apparel, either for underwear, or as beach attire. When they hear of Australians wearing thongs on their feet, images of broken elastic erupt unbidden in non-Australian minds.

If those same people were to hear of the Australian traditions of thong-throwing (like the discus, but less damaging if it goes into the crowd) or thong-clapping, they would be totally non-plussed, but these thongs are just flip-flops, named by the rubber thong that holds the rubber sole on the feet. Thong-throwing, by the way, is just one of many Australian sports which involve throwing everyday items such as bricks, rolling pins, beer kegs, bags of wheat, mallee roots, gum boots (Wellington boots) or anything else which attracts their fancy or comes to hand.

About the only thing Australians don't use for distance throwing contests is the boomerang. They could do so if they wished, since there is a non-returning form of this device, but they don't, and neither does a well-aimed thong return, except when it is directed into a headwind.

Thongs are convenient for walking to the beach, though most Australians will remove them when they reach the sand, to avoid flicking sand at the backs of their legs and at those they pass. Most Australian children learn the art of wading through the shallows with thongs, raising the toes as they move their feet, so the sole is held on.

Whatever you call them, this scuff form of footwear is less than suitable for the workplace, as they leave the feet vulnerable to heavy weights, sharp objects, and hot and corrosive liquids. So in a country where the footwear is highly popular, and workers need to be reminded of the dangers of wearing a simple open rubber sole in the workplace, the Australian name is a felicitous one, lending itself to posters with the caption "the thong is ended but the malady lingers on".

1 comment:

  1. And very attractive they are!
    I enjoyed this article :-)