Stupid Question ™
Dec. 19, 2002
By John Ruch
Q: Why do people use the phrase “made from scratch”? What is scratch?
A: “Scratch” is not a material used in making an item; it’s the condition under which the item is made.
In fact, scratch is not something. It’s nothing.
Making something from scratch does not, of course, mean you conjure it supernaturally from the void. It does mean that you make the item with a minimum of prefabricated materials and other conveniences.
All this will become clear as we look at the history of the word “scratch,” and if you think of, say, Duncan Hines cake mix as the baking equivalent of a golf handicap.
“Scratch” began life in the 1400s or so as a verb meaning specifically to make small abrasions to or cuts in the skin.
By the late 1500s it was also a noun referring to such a wound. It did not take long for this meaning to generalize into a term for superficial cuts or grooves made to almost any material.
Sports such as cricket and boxing required boundary lines to be cut into the ground, and by the 1700s these line were called scratches.
This is when the colloquialisms started to flow. The phrase “(come) up to scratch,” meaning to meet an expected level of performance or behavior, comes from the scratch formerly traced across a boxing ring at which the fighters would face off.
The starting line of a race was also known as a scratch, and by the mid-1800s was granted special distinction relative to racers granted a handicap, meaning a spot well ahead of the starting line. Handicapping horse races was especially common at the time.
Thus, to start from scratch was to start a race with absolutely no advantage beyond one’s inherent merits—in short, to start from nothing.
Of course, because it’s a term relative to a handicap, it actually implies you’re starting with a quite a lot of personal talent or skill. This is not an oxymoron; today, making something from scratch typically implies it is fresher and better than its store-bought equivalent.
The common modern formation is our “made from scratch,” and it’s almost exclusively a cooking term. But “start from scratch” was the original way the phrase spread, often referring to poor immigrants starting out with nothing, or similar situations.
To head off confusion, I will note that there is (or was) a substance called “scratch,” but for different reasons. In the 1700s and 1800s, it was the term for the hard material that precipitated out of seawater when it was boiled to remove its salt.
The “Oxford English Dictionary” speculates that it may have been called “scratch” because it had to be scratched off the boiling pans. Or it may relate to “scratching,” a 1400s term for the residue of tallow-making, which apparently is a corruption of a very different term variously written as “scracheins,” “cratchen,” “cracon,” etc.
In any case, this substance had nothing to do, figuratively or literally, with “made from scratch.”