The Grammarphobia Blog

Keeping score

Q: I’ve always assumed that “know the score” is a sports expression, but a friend of mine used it in reference to a violinist performing the Brahms Concerto in D. So did it originate in the sporting or musical worlds?

A: I think your friend may have unwittingly – or perhaps wittingly – made a nice pun! “Score” itself is an interesting word, so I’ll back up a bit before getting to your question.

The noun “score” originally meant a cut or a notch, and the verb meant to cut or notch something, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. These senses are still alive and well, of course.

Both noun and verb were first recorded around 1400. But we know the word was around much earlier than that.

The OED says a “score” meant a group of 20 as far back as 1100, apparently from the practice of counting large herds of sheep or cattle, and making a “score” or notch on a stick at every 20 animals.

In the 1200s, the verb “score” in the counting sense meant to record debts. The amount owed was “scored” (that is, cut or scratched) on a tally of some kind: notches in a stick or marks on a slate, for instance. In those days, a “score” at a public house was a bar tab.

Here’s a humorous citation from Chaucer’s The Shipman’s Tale (1386), in which a husband tries to get money from his wife. She replies: “For I wol paye yow wel and redily / Fro day to day, and if so be I faille, / I am youre wyf; score it upon my taille, / And I shal paye as soone as ever I may.”

Soon the word was being used to mean “count” in a more general way: to record a number of anything.

And in 1742 the verb “score” came to mean adding points to one’s game; the first published use was in Edmond Hoyle’s A Short Treatise on the Game of Whist. From card games, “score” made a short jump to team sports in the mid-19th century.

Meanwhile, back once more to the Middle Ages. Another early meaning of “score” was to mark something with a line or lines.

This sense of the word later gave us the musical meanings: a “score” is music written on lined paper with the staves connected by vertical lines; to “score” a ballet or movie or whatever is to write music for it.

So where does “know the score” come into the picture?

Both Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang and Eric Partridge’s A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English claim the expression grew out of sports imagery. But the OED doesn’t say as much, and I’m not convinced.

The OED traces the use of “score” to mean “the essential point “ or “the state of affairs” to the late 1930s. The citation given for this sense is from the journal Better English (1938), in which the word “dope” is defined as “a guy who doesn’t know the score.”

Does the guy fail to “know the score” in the game sense, or in the more general sense of what it all adds up to? We don’t know.

The musical “score” is probably out of the running. But as with so many expressions, it’s difficult to tell the original source of this one.

Sorry I can’t be more definitive.

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