Slang City Mail

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September 6, 2007
Slang of the Week: Scratchland (noun)

“James,” said Minerva, “Let’s take a holiday in Edinurgh. I’ve got an itch to see Scratchland.”

Celebrity quote
“But a merry one forever for such lads as us, Mr. Pepper!  I say, has you heard as how Bill Fang went to Scratchland and was stretched for smashing queer screens*?”
- Edward Bulwer-Lytton in the novel Paul Clifford (1830)

John Lennon (among other people) is supposed to have said, “Life is what happens to you when you're making other plans.” In the world of words, the liveliest finds are often those you make while looking for something else.

This week, I was thumbing through Francis Grose’s deliciously funny 1785 slang dictionary, The Vulgar Tongue, in search of a word about pit bull training (don’t ask) when I came across Itchland and Scratchland as slang words for Scotland. While the word hasn’t been in common use for over 100 years, I did find it used in Publisher’s Weekly last year in a review of a book set in the nineteenth century.

Pop culture lover that I am, I could only think of Itchy and Scratchy, the ultra-violent cat and mouse cartoon on The Simpsons--they had their own theme park called Itchy and
Scratchy Land. While the show’s creator, Matt Groening, is from Oregon, he does seem to have an affinity for Scots, based on the eccentric character Groundskeeper Willie, who tends the playground at Bart’s school.

As for those of you who are literary buffs, I imagine you read this week’s quote and thought, “Wait a minute! Isn’t that the guy who…”

Yes, it is. Bulwer-Lytton is famous for writing one of the worst (and longest) opening sentences ever to appear in a novel: “It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents, except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the house-tops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.” The Scratchland quote comes later in the same book.

Bulwer-Lytton’s wordy prose style is still celebrated with a contest to see who can match it in modern fiction. Though the 2007 winner was announced in late July, you can start working on your entry for next year. According to organizer Scott Rice, of
San Jose State University, submissions are accepted throughout the year. See for details.

* “stretched for smashing queer screens,” Bulwer-Lytton goes on to explain, means hung for forging bank notes.

Take a look in our bookstore for books and DVDs on all kinds of slang! This week’s pick: If the archaic Vulgar Tongue doesn’t float your boat, try Ship to Shore: A Dictionary of Everyday Words and Phrases Derived from the Sea