scrimshaw: proposed etymology

Stephen Goranson goranson at DUKE.EDU
Fri Oct 16 12:14:10 UTC 2009

"Scrimshaw," and several associated variant spellings, refers to handicraft work
by sailors on long voyages.
The OED etymology note reads:
"[Of obscure origin; the surname Scrimshaw, if not actually the source,
may have influenced the form of the word. Cf. prec.]"
'prec." refers to the later-attested 'scrimshank v.," "of obscure origin," "to
shirk duty."
J. C. Hotten's Slang Dictionary, 1869, p. 233 gives: SCRIMSHAW ; anything made
by sailors for themselves in their leisure hours at sea, is termed
Other quotations could be provided, but it is not controversial that scrimshaw
arises when sailors have considerable available time.
OED and others reasonably suggest that the family name Scrimshaw may be
relevant in this word's origin, but, unless I missed relevant literature, no
reason is given why this particular family name took on this meaning.
In the 19th century, when this word appears, a rather famous Scrimshaw
had been Jane Scrimshaw, of London, who, reportedly, lived to be a remarkable
127 years long.
For a possible echo of long-lived Jane, mentioned in the context of length of
time at sea, consider, from four references in

Man overboard.
Freeman Wills Crofts
English Book Book 298 p. ; 19 cm.
London : White,
Mr. Crofts, the elder (his son apparently had the same name), published in
London, old Jane's home town.

Page 86: "Throw him old Mother Scrimshanks, she'll keep him amused and playful
till we get that fine fellow aboard."

Page 70: They, _Sotto voce_: "The Captain'd better mind his navigation.
We'll serve out Mrs. Scrimshanks ere we land" "My grey hair to the grave...."

Here, "Mrs. Scrimshanks" means a long time to serve out.
Therefore, possibly, the long-lived Jane Scrimshaw represented the long time
available to make handicrafts, and, in a secondary development, to trifle,
waste time, shirk duty.

Stephen Goranson

The American Dialect Society -

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