The Grammarphobia Blog

Let’s scare up an etymology

Q: Do you know the origin of  the term “scare up,” meaning to find something not easily available?

A: The verb phrase “scare up” had its origins in 19th-century America and was once a hunting term. To “scare up” or “scare out” was to frighten game out of cover. 

Hence, “scare up” was later used figuratively to mean “to bring to light, to discover; to procure, obtain, ‘rustle up,’ ” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED labels the expression colloquial, which means it’s more appropriate for speech than for writing.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) agrees, describing it as “informal,” but Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) lists it without qualification.

The first recorded example in the OED is from a New York sporting weekly called Spirit of  the Times (1846): “He is also to send us the rattles of the biggest snake ever scared up in ‘Old Norf Caline.’ ”

Here’s another hunting example, using “scare out,” from Joseph W. Long’s book American Wild-fowl Shooting (1874): “We probably won’t scare out any very large batches of ducks.”

Now for an example of the figurative use of “scare up,” from John Galsworthy’s play Loyalties (1922): “I can scare up the money for that.”

And here’s another figurative citation, from a British mystery by Helen Nielsen, The Brink of Murder (1976): “Why don’t you relax … and then we’ll scare up some dinner.”

As you might guess, the word “scare” (to frighten or terrify) is very old. It dates back to the 1200s and came from an Old Norse word with the same meaning: skirra.

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