scoff and scarf

I found myself doing something that I take others to task for: assuming that a usage that differs from my own is 'wrong'. Well, at least I had the good sense to look it up before blogging about it. You see, I was reading along (belatedly as ever) in the 22/29 December 2007 issue of New Scientist, in an article titled 'Death by chocolate' by Claire Ainsworth, and I came across this sentence:
If you're reading this after scoffing your fifteenth chocolate Santa, don't panic: we humans have been safely enjoying the beans of the cacao plant, Theobroma cacao, for millennia.
I wonder how many other readers would find the use of the verb scoff strange here. I only know scoff as meaning 'to deride, mock', and so I assumed that what had happened here was that a BrE-speaking author or (BrE) subeditor/(AmE) copy editor had misspelt the verb to scarf because in their dialect, the /r/ wouldn't be pronounced--and so if they'd not seen the word written down before, they might reason that it's really scoff--a familiar verb that is also onomatopoetic for the action of whipping food into one's mouth. (Some linguists call such errors--where an unfamiliar word is replaced with something that seems to 'make more sense'--eggcorns.)

Except that my reasoning is completely backward. It's fairly frequent that, when faced with two versions of a word, people believe that the version that they came across first is the older version. But, of course, the world doesn't work that way. The OED records scoff as meaning 'devour' from 1846, and lists it as 'slang and dialectal'. Another version of the word, scaff is dated back to 1797, and a slang dictionary records the variant scorf in 1864. On the other hand, the OED doesn't have documentation of AmE scarf until the 1960s. (Though others have found it as early as 1938.) So, instead of an 'r' being lost by speakers of a BrE non-rhotic dialect, we probably have speakers of an AmE dialect (probably one of the non-rhotic ones) inserting an 'r' in the spelling of the word.

The 'eating' meaning of scoff is not particular to BrE--it's used in AmE too, though not by me. (And, of course, the unrelated 'deride' meaning of scoff and the 'neckwear' meaning of scarf are both dialect-neutral and unrelated to the 'eating' homonyms.)

I would have known all this earlier had I not been on my honeymoon in August when the issue was raised and discussed on the American Dialect Society e-mail discussion list. Once again, my personal life interferes with my quest for know-it-all-dom.

28 comments

  1. "Scoff" in the sense of wolfing down food is a real Beano/Dandy word - I can easily imagine The Bash Street Kids scoffing grub.

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  2. 'Come to scoff, stay to pray' was a [BrE] slogan used by preachers to describe the conversion of sceptics in the 19th-century days of Moral Rearmament, I believe.
    In some circles, 'scoff' is used as noun, meaning the kind of food that one eats in quantity, with beer!

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  3. Once upon a time, a young American boy moved with his family from the Midwest (a rhotic area, Britons) to Boston (a very non-rhotic area). Soon he began to hear stories (from the children he played with) about a certain giant who lived in the sky. He asked his parents why they had never told him about this giant.

    Willing to humor him a bit, they asked, "What is the name of this giant supposed to be?"

    "It's Gard", he told them.

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  4. I (AmE) associate 'scarf' with the New York area. I don't think I had heard it used in this sense before I moved there from California. But I was only 13 at the time, so maybe that's not saying much.

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  5. Just for giggles, I'll mention that I grew up in Colorado (western USA, to save looking at a map), and for me the most common version of this verb is to "snarf", as in, "I didn't think I was hungry, but I snarfed the whole pie." "Snarf up" is also fine in my dialect.

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  6. My father, as a British diplomat, was delighted to come across a Serbian apparatchik called "Dr Milko Skoffitch" (I transliterate, since I can't do the accents) and named our ravenous cream-coloured hamster in his honour, Dr Kreemo Scoffitch.

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  7. Thank you for this excellent and entertaining piece Lynne. I always thought of "scoff" as an old usage in BrE and "scarf" as a cheeky AmE incomer only heard on The Telly, though as we know these perceptions can occasionally be less than 100% accurate.

    I think I most commonly associate "scoff" (eating) with the usage "scoffed the lot" or perhaps, very daringly, "scoffed the bloomin' lot" in, as David says, a somewhat BSK sort of usage. (Or maybe even the sainted Molesworth?)

    I am less sure that it is a very current usage. I will attempt to negotiate with my tame(ish) teenager, exchanging food, technical support or money for usage information ... watch this space.

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  8. Jill--I (and the American Heritage Dictionary!) think of snarf as being a separate word--a blending of snort and scarf. Note that one can snarf food or drink (again, the AHD backs me up on this) or cocaine through the nose (OED lists this one), but scarf is pretty much limited to eating.

    OED has snarf as 'originally' AmE, but only has BrE examples for the 'inhale drugs' sense.

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  9. Of course, I forgot to say (second comment, above) that those who go to church and stay on for Harvest Supper have therefore 'come to pray, stayed to scoff'. Weak British pun, sorry.

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  10. Are "scoff" and "scarf" really homonyms in non-rhotic dialects? (I don't speak such a dialect, but I'd have thought the vowel would be quite different.)

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  11. Doug--no, they're not. But eggcorns are rarely perfect homophones. (Eggcorn-acorn is a case in point!)

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  12. One of my consultant young persons reports (surprisingly [to me anyway]): "Well, if I were to scoff fifteen mars bars, I would definitely scoff them. However, I would scarf down a big bowl of chocolate pudding. I think it's the down bit that makes the difference. However I'd use the latter very rarely..."

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  13. perfectly normal usage in new zealand.

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  14. I've heard "scarf", but associated it with "snaffle"[BrE?] and "scarper"[BrE?], and assumed it meant something like "running off with the last cookie"

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  15. I wonder if scoff/scarf is, in some way related to quaff, which I (US Northeast) would only use in relation to drinking something.

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  16. "There's a strong suggestion that the verb (Scoff) is from a quite different English dialect word, scaff, meaning to gobble"

    According to everything I have seen. This quote from http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_qn4159/is_20051023/ai_n15719152

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  17. Molly, "scarper" is indeed BrE, probably from London originally, as it is rhyming slang and works best in a London accent. Like most London rhyming slang, it works in two stages. What you have to realise is that "scarper" in LonE rhymes more or less perfectly with "scapa." And to "scarper/scapa" (at least according to what I [ScE] have read and heard and which I have no reason to doubt) is a shortening of "Scapa Flow", which rhymes with "go." Not as contrived and unlikely as some might think: it's how London rhyming slang works. For instance, the LonRS for a watch is "kettle." Kettle is short for kettle and hob (as in stovetop in BrE), hob rhymes with fob, as in fob watch, and so we get kettle for "a watch."

    Sorry for length of post.

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  18. After sending my last post (and quite in the wrong order of course) I googled "scarper." It has a longer and more colourful history than I had thought, although the explanation I had given is a part of it. To be found here:
    http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/311400.html

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  19. Never heard the expression "scoff" in relationship to food, unless you thought it unworthy somehow. To my AmE ears, it is, and has alwasy been, "scarf" to practically inhale the food you are eating so fast.

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  20. Like David, the term "scoff" conjures up for me images of the Bash Street Kids, or of the children in 1950s/1960s children's novels set in boarding schools (e.g. Billy Bunter), dashing to the tuck shop.
    "Scarf" is what I wear round my neck!

    (I much enjoy the blog, by the way!)

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  21. Wow... I've been student teaching and there's a teacher-made poster of synonyms for 'eat', including the word 'scoff'. I thought about correcting him, but now I'm glad I didn't!

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  22. When someone scoffs at another they inhale deeply and make a noise, just before they speak to someone or about something in a scornfully derisive or mocking way. Kind of like getting ready for a long winded rant. Hence the phrase to scoff at someone or make a scoffing noise. So the phrase "to scoff food down" was used to describe someone who eat so fast as to inhale the food rather than chew it, as well as someone who makes a similar sound while devouring their food. I can only imagine that someone misheard this and came up with "scarf food down" which doesn't really make any sense, unless one eats scarves...

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  23. The OED gives the primary meaning of scoff v2 as

    trans. To eat voraciously, devour; also gen. to eat. Also with up, down. Also fig.

    In my experience the gen, meaning of simply 'to eat' is not available. Rather it signals both 'voraciously' and 'devour'. Like David Malone and jangalschu I equate it with the action of — for example — unsophisticated kids in unsophisticated cartoons. Faced with kid-attractive food, they do what Clare Ainsworth does when faced with a chocolate Santa: they eat it as quickly and comprehensively as possible.

    You scoff a thing because you're desperate not to give the opportunity to anyone else.

    Down or up can be used for belt-and-braces redundancy. It means 'completely' without a particle, but often sounds better with one.

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  24. Thinking it over, in my (BrE, elderly) speech to scoff is synonymous (almost) but less polished than to wolf.

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  25. In college at the University of Maryland in the 60s, my dorm mates from Baltimore said things like "Let's go scarf down some pizza". Years earlier I had seen a Mad Magazine lampoon of a toothpaste ad supposedly intended for jazz musicians; it had the motto "For cats who can't sand every scoff". I think that was my only encounter with "scoff" in the context of eating. I figured it was a synonym of "scarf" but was never sure. In any case, the Mad Magazine writers of the 50s expected "scoff" to be understood. The idea that "scarf" (in this sense) is a corruption of "scoff" seems plausible to me, and it seems to have gained dominance.

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  26. In the British Army 'scoff' is used as a noun for food, rather than as a verb for eating. Thus: "It's time for scoff." Or "Get that scoff down you".

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  27. Same exact reaction as you! Thank you for researching this so I don't have to. ;-)

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  28. Scoff is a British Army word for eat, meal time, and food. The RN uses scran. I was surprised to hear African Americans using scoff for the same meaning in NYC and in Louisiana. Where does the word come from?

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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)