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.