Made With Scratch?

By Guest Author

This is a guest post by Yvonne Canchola. If you want to write for Daily Writing Tips check the guidelines here.

A fast food restaurant, I heard recently on the radio, now has “scratch-made” biscuits. I’m suspicious, but what bothers me more than my doubts is the misuse of the idiom “to make something from scratch.” The writers of the commercial seem to think that “scratch” is a metaphorical ingredient. You may hear your grandma saying that she made “made coffee from chicory.” In that case what follows “from” is a material, an ingredient. In the idiom “to make something from scratch,” the preposition “from” has a more physically directional meaning. The origin of the idiom may clarify what I mean by that.

The Word Detective, Evan Morris, wrote in a 1997 post titled “The Devil made me bake it“:

The phrase comes from the lingo of 19th century sporting events, specifically the ‘scratch’ drawn in the ground which served (and often still does) as the starting line of a foot race. A runner ‘starting from scratch’ received no handicap or benefit—whatever the contestant accomplished was due solely to his or her own efforts. So, too, is a cook baking a cake without the benefit of Betty Crocker or her ilk said to be making it ‘from scratch.’

The OED dates the first use of the term in that sense back to 1867. “Starting from scratch” is actually quite parallel in meaning to “starting from zero.” And who would advertise “zero-made biscuits?”

The fast food chain advertising their biscuits isn’t alone with their misunderstanding. I did not find an overwhelming number of hits when I googled “scratch-made.” For the most part, people still seem to say “made from scratch.” But “scratch-made” is out there. Alyssa Vance posted an article titled “Scratch-Made Condiments” on Heavy Table on December 28, 2009. As far as I could tell, she was not punning. Some food-blogs use the expression as well. I even found a couple of companies whose names include “scratch-made”.

The first site, Scratch Made Cars, however, has a pun going for it: the company creates 3D-modeling blueprints for cars. “Scratching” is sometimes used as a humorous synonym for drawing; so their blueprints are made by scratching. The sweets company—well, I think they are just in the same club as the fast food chain with their new biscuits.

Maybe “scratch-made” is just an economical derivation, just an evolution of the old idiom. Quite possibly the commercials will bring the new usage into the public mind, and soon search engines will turn up many more results for it. Personally, I am attached enough to the quirky stories of etymology that I prefer using idioms in such a way that their origins live on in our language.

About the Author: As a freelance editor and writer, Yvonne Canchola takes a special interest in academic writing, historical fiction/non-fiction hybrid pieces, and multilingual education.

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8 Responses to “Made With Scratch?”

  • NEB

    I’ve not heard the term ‘scratch-made’ before, but as soon as I read it I thought of ‘home-made’. Perhaps this is what they are suggesting and not that ‘scratch’ is a ‘metaphorical ingredient’.

  • Kathryn

    Like NEB, I thought of “home-made” (made at home) and hand-made (made by hand). And, while I can see your point about not losing sight of the origins. . .in fact, by the substitution of “made” for “start” the phrase has already been shifted some distance from its origin. To be honest, I find the probable inaccuracy of the phrase (and, in far too many cases, of the phrases hand-made and home-made) far more troubling than the evolution of the idiom in a direction which is perfectly comprehensible. . .except, perhaps, by the people who write slogans for fast-food joints.

  • Deborah H

    I always thought “made from scratch” meant starting with the grain—“scratch” being the grain fed to the chickens: corn, wheat, and et cetera.

    If you started from scratch, you had to grind the grain to make the flour, which eventually came to mean starting with the flour.

    But I have no proof.

  • Frank Elliott

    I’ve seen the TV ad that uses this phrase, and having written copy for television ads, I have no doubt that “scratch-made” was coined to save a word. In a 30-second spot, every word really does count – especially when the client then wants a version of the spot that’s only 15 seconds long.

  • Charlie

    ‘Scratch-made’ is a new one to me. I have heard and do use ‘scratch cook’, meaning you see what you’ve got in the kitchen and go from there. A method that can produce surprising results – tasty and not-so-tasty. The process can be fun.

    Reading that ‘scratch-made’ is from a commercial, explains it all. Pack the max info into a few words as possible and get the folks to buy. Yup.

  • Nelida K.

    Had never heard the term before, but on reading the article, I instantly could identify with its title “Made from scratch?” and with the author’s interpretation. To me, the expression has always meant “starting out from zero”, or “from the basics”, or “from the basic ingredients”. I feel that in this instance, if “home-made” is what was meant, or intended to mean, and the economy of language was sought (as appropriately suggested by Frank), why not use “home-made” and be done with it. It would certainly have had the desired effect (hmm…home-made cookies….yummy!) on prospective consumers, and I’m no marketing wizzard, just a professional linguist (and not even native in English, to boot!). So I am taking sides with Frank’s and Charlie’s comments, and fully sharing Ivonne’s views. Definitely.

  • Peter

    and having written copy for television ads, I have no doubt that “scratch-made” was coined to save a word.

    Not a very effective technique, though — I would go out of my way to avoid anything advertised as “scratch-made”…

  • Kristy

    I named my business Scratch Made. I take unwanted items and create items that people want. For example, I make yarn from old worn t-shirts. Some might say that I’m not really starting from scratch because I did not plant, harvest and process the cotton myself, but that’s not as earth friendly. I like your take on the term and I’m sure it was invented via some marketing ploy, but I hope the term sticks!

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