In a word: scabrous

The Baltimore Sun

Each week The Sun's John McIntyre presents a relatively obscure but evocative word with which you may not be familiar, another brick to add to the wall of your vocabulary. This week's word:


Scab has been in English since the thirteenth century, but the adjectival form, scabrous (pronounced SKAB-rus), turned up in the seventeenth. The root is the Latin scabere, “to scratch,” “to scrape.”

As is so often the case, scabrous bears both a literal and a metaphorical sense. Literally, it indicates a rough surface with small points, like a file, or a surface marked with scabs, blotchy or encrusted. Figuratively, the “rough” sense came to describe writing that was harsh or unpolished. Dryden said of Juvenal, “His verse is scabrous, and hobbling.” In time, the additional metaphorical senses of “indecent,” “scandalous,” “shocking,” and “salacious” came into play, and that it how we see the word most commonly used today.

Example: David Carr, writing of Charlie Sheen in “One Line Not to Cross in Hollywood,” The New York Times, 2011: “Mr. Sheen has been playing to type as a naughty boy in a man’s body; the result was often scabrous and funny and a hit in the ratings.”

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