The Grammarphobia Blog

Scandalous to the bitter end!

Q: I enjoyed your posting about “taken aback,” but I’m surprised that you didn’t mention two other usages with nautical origins: “scandalize” and “bitter end.”

A: We’re glad you enjoyed that posting, but we must disagree with you about “scandalize” and “bitter end.” There’s no evidence that their ordinary senses have seafaring origins.

It’s true that there’s a verb spelled “scandalize” that means (in the words of the Oxford English Dictionary) “to reduce the area of (a sail) by lowering the peak and tricing up the tack.”

We’ll take Oxford’s word for it, since that explanation is Greek to us! The Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia defines it as “to trice up the tack of the spanker,” which sounds pretty scandalous to us.

Anyway, the nautical term, which isn’t in any of the modern standard dictionaries we checked, is no relation to the “scandalize” that means to shock someone.

In fact, the nautical word “scandalize” originated as a misspelling, an alteration of an earlier verb, “scantelize,” meaning to shorten or curtail.

In the 1500s, “scantle” (or “scantlet”) was a noun meaning a piece or portion of something. And the verb “scantle” meant to stint on, cut down, or diminish.

The etymology of “scantle” is a question mark (there’s no evidence that it’s related to the adjective “scant,” which comes from Old Norse).

But going back to the seafaring use of “scandalize,” it was first recorded in the 19th century. The OED has only two citations.

Here’s the first, from an 1862 book on yachting: “Keep your peak standing, or scandalise the mainsail.”

In the second, a contributor to the journal Notes & Queries in 1867 said that “scandalising a sail” was a phrase “in common use among Cornish sailors fully forty years ago.”

The original “scandalize,” on the other hand, dates back to 1490, when the OED says it meant “to bruit abroad, make a public scandal of (a discreditable secret).”

The modern meaning, “to horrify or shock by some supposed violation of morality or propriety,” was first recorded in 1676, according to citations in the OED.

So both meanings were recorded long before those 19th-century writers spelled the nautical “scantelize” as “scandalize.”

And now (you asked for it!), on to the “bitter end.”

In our opinion there’s no connection between the nautical meaning of the phrase and its more ordinary meaning in everyday usage. The similarity appears to be coincidental.

Let’s look at the expression first from the sailor’s point of view.

The posts that a ship’s cables are wrapped around, both on board ship and at the pier, are called “bitts,” a word first recorded in the early 1600s. Bitts generally come in pairs so the line can be wrapped around them in a figure-eight.

A “bitter” is a single turn of the line around the bitts. And the “bitter end” is the end of the line that’s attached to the ship.

The OED has this quotation from A Sea Grammar by Capt. John Smith (1627): “A Bitter is but the turne of a Cable about the Bits, and … the Bitters end is that part of the Cable doth stay within boord.”

And here’s a quotation from The Sailor’s Word-book, by William Henry Smyth (1867): “A ship is ‘brought up to a bitter’ when the cable is allowed to run out to that stop. … When a chain or rope is paid out to the bitter-end, no more remains to be let go.”

In its everyday sense, the phrase “to the bitter end” has a very different meaning: “to the last and direst extremity” or “to death itself,” in the words of the OED. And, it adds, the expression’s “history is doubtful.”

The OED’s two earliest citations for the phrase in this sense are from the mid-19th century. But in both cases, the writers enclosed the phrase in quotation marks as if they were quoting an earlier source.

Here are the two quotations, both from the Congressional Globe (precursor to the Congressional Record):

“I am unfortunately among those who voted for the gentleman from Indiana, even ‘to the bitter end’ ” (1849);

“Our defence is a just one, and will be maintained by us to the ‘bitter end’ ” (1850).

Why the quotation marks? It’s possible the reference was biblical. Here’s Proverbs 5:3-4 (King James Version, 1611):

“For the lips of a strange woman drop as an honeycomb, and her mouth is smoother than oil: But her end is bitter as wormwood, sharp as a two-edged sword.”

The British wordsmith Michael Quinion has found several examples of “bitter end” in works from the 17th, 18th, and early 19th centuries, all predating those OED examples.

And he notes on his website, World Wide Words, that many come from sermons and religious tracts, which suggests they were biblical allusions.

So our guess is that any connection between the two “bitter ends” is at best doubtful, and probably accidental.

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