Printable Version
Pronunciation: skêrf Hear it!

Part of Speech: Noun, mass

Meaning: 1. A scaly condition of the skin, including the scalp where it is called 'dandruff'. 2. (Rare) Low-life, the scum of the Earth, worthless people or animals.

Notes: The original adjective derived from scurf, scurvy, wandered off on its own long ago, coming to its current meaning of "worthless, sorry, in very bad condition." Scurvy also came to be used as a noun referring to a debilitating disease caused by a lack of Vitamin C. As a result, flaky skin—or virtually anything with a flaky surface in poor condition—is now said to be scurfy. This means that the condition itself is scurfiness.

In Play: The flakes on flaky skin, especially dandruff, are the primary designees of today's Good Word: "Since trying this new shampoo, I've developed an odd scurf in my hair that's worse than the dandruff I was trying to rid myself of." The adjective today is often used in botany to refer to plants with flaky stems: "This new plant you bought has beautiful flowers, but they all grow on a scurfy stem I would be afraid to touch."

Word History: Although there seems to be some evidence of the ancestors of today's Good Word in other Indo-European languages, most of them are concentrated in Germanic languages like Danish skurv "plant fungus", German Schorf "scurf", and Dutch schurft "scabies". For centuries English speakers have had difficulty keeping the U and R straight in scurf, so early on the word was often pronounced scruff, the origin of today's scruffy, implying "unkempt, dirty". Scruff was then confused with another word, scuff "back of the neck", leading us to say "grab someone by the scruff of the neck" instead of "scuff of the neck". (Today we thank the absolutely scurfless Sara Goldman for seeing the value in this word and suggesting it to us.)

Dr. Goodword,

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