Saving “Scraggy”

“It continued to survive in scraggy sort of way.” M.E.M. Davis, Under the Man-Fig (1895)

This post is about a word, so those readers who wish to imbibe a metaphysical, moral or political lesson will have to bring their own or go without.  The word is scraggy, and it is one that I fear may have passed into lexical limbo, for I have not heard it in a very long time.  My grandfather, a farmer, described his emaciated cows and cats as “scraggy,” and the playmates of my youth deprecated each other’s bony girlfriends with the word; but I nowadays seldom hear critical commentary on cows, women my age tend to be sleek, and were a credentialed colleague required to characterize some gaunt beast, I think he might say it was “under-resourced.”

The origin of scraggy is naturally obscure, but the best guess is that it sprang from the Gaelic sgrog, which meant shrunken and shriveled (1). Thus, a body that had shriveled to skin and bones was called a scrag, and the adjectives scraggy, scragged, and scraggly naturally followed from this.  Here is a sample from 1602.

“Horace was a goodly corpulent gentleman, and not so lean a hollow-cheeked scrag as thou art” (2).

Scraggy should not be confused with slender or svelte, since a scrag was uncomely and wasted by age, starvation or disease.  The scrag was not only a skeletal body, but a body whose skeleton was twisted, bent and deformed.

Hence the word easily became a descriptor of crooked trees with branches that were forked and bent, particularly trees whose growth had been stunted by a niggardly soil, a scorching sun, or a withering wind (3).  Walking near Tyler, Texas in 1884, a literary vagabond wrote:

“One wanders for miles along a sandy road, among leafless, stunted post-oaks and the blackjacks, which are scraggy enough to scratch out the eyes of the very wind” (4).

(I have been holding a draft of this post since August, waiting for autumn winds to strip the leaves from our post oaks and blackjacks, so I could take a photograph revealing their full scragginess.  So here they are, the scraggy skeleton trees of Texas, as photographed while I walked yesterday on a dirt road just east of the Navasota River.)

The word scrag also denoted an individual knob of bone that pressed out against the flesh.  An elbow, kneecap or knuckle was therefore a scrag, as was the bone in a joint of roasted meat (5).   From this the word came to denote what New Englander’s call a “ledge,” which is to say knob of bedrock that protrudes through the soil (6).  Or above the surface of the sea.  The first whalers on the island of Nantucket are said to have thrown their harpoons from “a scrag” (7).  Any protuberance of the bones of the earth was therefore a scrag, and a land of thin and intermittent soil came to be known as a “scraggy country.”

Journeying across Wales in 1843, Thomas Carlyle for instance called the starveling hills “a poor, bare, scraggy country, with a poor, bare, scraggy people; the few beautiful objects drowned, generally, in rain and mist” (8).  Henry David Thoreau likewise described the rocky summit of Mount Katahdin as “a scraggy country,” and noted that it was, moreover, sparsely studded with the tortured forms of “scraggy trees” (9).

In time, men came to call any wasted and impoverished land scraggy, even if the trees were tall and stones were nowhere to be seen.  In the late nineteenth century, one writer called the cypress swamps of the lower Mississippi bayous “scraggy” (10), and the word could be applied to anything that was broken down, shambled and unkempt.  The cabin of a poor white in the piney woods of east Texas was, for instance, said to be encompassed by “a scraggy rail fence”(11).

So, now that you have taken all of this word lore on board, I will ask you to look about for something in your vicinity that is, whether actually or metaphorically, shriveled, starveling or shrunken.  When you find it (this should not take long), call it scraggy.  Because we lose words when we do not use them, and when we lose a word like scraggy, we are another step closer to being speakers of a scraggy language that is pocked-marked with carbuncles of managerial jargon.


(1) Hensleigh Wedgewood, A Dictionary of English Etymology, vol. 3, pt. 1 (London: Trübner, 1859), p. 129.

(2) Thomas Dekker, Satiro-Mastix (London: Eadward White, 1602), p. 47.

(3) William Barnes, Poems of Rural Life, in the Dorset Dialect (London: J.R. Smith, 1844), p. 345.

(4) Stephen Powers, Afoot and Alone: A Walk from Sea to Sea by the Southern Route (Hartford, Connecticut: Columbian Book Co., 1884), p. 111-112.

(5) John Wilkins, An Essay Towards a Real Character, and a Philosophical Language (London: Sa. Gellibrand and John Martyn, 1668), p. 183.

(6) William Richards, Wallography, or The Britton Described, Being a Pleasant Relation of a Journey into Wales (London: Obadiah Blagrave, 1682), p. 15; John Sadler, Olbia, theNew Island Lately Discovered (Hartlib and Bartlet, 1660), p. 2.

(7) Frederick Denison, Illustrated New Bedford, Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket (Providence, R. I.: J.A. and R.A. Reid, 1879), p. 62.

(8) Richard Herne Shepherd, Memoirs of the Life and Writing of Thomas Carlyle, vol. 1 (London: W. H. Allan, 1881), p. 288.

(9) Henry David Thoreau, The Maine Woods

(10) Robert King, The Southern States Since the War, 1870-1871 (London: Macmillan and Co, 1871), p. 190.

(11) Edward King, The Great South (Hartford, Conn: American Publishing Co., 1875), p. 139.

13 thoughts on “Saving “Scraggy”

    • Scraggy/scraggly coyotes used to be a fairly common feature of the landscape in my neck of the woods. Having spent many years away, only to have returned pretty recently, I noted almost right away that the scraggly coyote had, in the interim, turned into a fuller, more robust looking animal. I take it this is because Providence has since given him a more robust supply of food stuffs. Nevertheless I have occasionally seen a scraggy/scraggly looking coyote during the extreme heat of the summer months in the time I have been back.

  1. I hope we millennials don’t yeet “scraggy” into the recycle bin because that word is on fleek.
    Jokes aside, here is what my favorite etymology resource has to say about scraggy:

    early 13c., “rough, jagged” (figurative); 1570s, of landscape, “rough, rugged, stumpy;” 1610s, of persons, “gaunt and wasted, lean, thin, bony;” see scrag + -y (2), and compare scroggy, scraggly. In Scottish, scranky.

    I do enjoy how ‘fluid’ language is over time, the winding path of a word tends to have a lot of surprises, and tells you a lot about the people who used it. I’ll do my utmost to keep Scraggy in the lexicon!

  2. Very interesting post as always.
    In the southern U.S., the word “scraggly” is still somewhat commonly used, but the emphasis is now more on untidiness, as in “a scraggly beard.”
    Thanks for this bit of etymological revanchism, I will definitely be fitting scraggy into my vocabulary.

    • Now that you mention it, I have heard “scraggly beard” used to indicate the opposite of luxuriant. I suppose the ultimate sense in this is that the beard has been starved, so if beards had bones, those bones would be sticking out.

      • As a user of exactly this term with regard to beards and other objects, methinks it connotes bareness as well as untidiness. Thus a scraggly beard is not just one that is unkempt (like mine, which grows to respectable length inside two weeks), but one that is bare, patchy, unfulsome, and unattractive thereby (like my brother-in-law’s, who always looks like a try-hard 14-year-old when he lets his grow even for 3 years straight).

        Too, Gloucester’s beard is scraggly after Regan is done with it.

        Scraggly does not have much scope for use outside beards, but it can describe other hairy/furry objects in the same condition; thus, a malnourished cow in Olivier’s pasture (a gross injustice, as for all his niggardly faults the man is downright magnanimous toward his cattle) is scraggly, because it is thin and wasted and it has tufts of fur which stick out, poorly groomed, at the hips and on the flanks.

        Scraggly also applies to trees who, winter being unkind, have revealed a truly twisted structure in their nakedness, so long as they are pitiable instead of malevolent.

  3. Pingback: Saving “Scraggy” | Reaction Times

  4. In Tasmania, a scrag is an unkept, trashy looking, generally tatooed woman who is also probably a mole.
    It is used like this:
    “Ya scrag!”
    “Look at that scrag”

    A scrag is usually quite gaunt, which may be the connection.


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