What in the Word?! On a ‘scavenger’ hunt
In the last article for our ‘What in the Word?!’ series, we saw how Middle English inserted an unetymological ‘n’ into the words harbinger, messenger, passenger, porringer, and wharfinger. Well, we didn’t fully pick over that list, as it were, for we left out at least one little, foraging fellow: scavenger.
Contrary to our lexical hunches, the noun scavenger doesn’t tack on the suffix -er to scavenge for ‘one who scavenges’ – just as a harbinger isn’t ‘one who harbinges’. As fun and functional as harbinge may be, English simply doubled up on harbinger for its verb form, whereas scavenge has become full-fledged verb all its own. But put a pin in that for a moment.
A scavenger started out as a scavager, which, now in keeping with all our deep-seated knowledge of English grammar, is in fact ‘one who collects scavage’. Whew! Just when we start questioning everything, this language starts making sense again. Scavage + -er = scavager. Add a ‘n’, color the vowel, and voila! Scavenger. But wait. What the devil is scavage?
An obscure, old word like scavage calls for the dictionary. The Oxford English Dictionary defines scavage as a ‘toll formerly levied by the mayor, sheriff, or corporation of London and other towns on merchant strangers, on goods offered for sale within their precincts’. In other words, a scavage was a town-based tax levied on foreign merchants, especially in London.
The OED first finds the term in the Rolls of Parliament – the official records of the English parliament from about 1275 to 1500 – which in 1444 entered, with updated spelling: ‘They pay scavage for the same merchandise at Southampton.’ An earlier entry in the Rolls, from 1402, shows the Anglo-Norman predecessor of scavage: scawage. This word is based on regional Old French escauwer, ‘to inspect’, with the French noun-forming suffix -age we see in other borrowings ranging from beverage to voyage. The verb escauwer is turn taken from the Flemish scauwen.
Good thing scavage didn’t charge a fee for imported words.
But before we get too lost in the ironies, the Flemish scauwen corresponds to the Old English scéawian, meaning and source of ‘show’. Old English even had its own synonym for scavage: scéawung, a ‘showing’. (We can imagine how historic scavagers asked traders to ‘show’ them their wares, which came to signify an ‘inspection’.) The OED finds scéawung in a number of 12th- and 13th-century documents sourced to royal charters issued by William I in 1068.
That’s William the Conqueror. Duke of Normandy. Who conquered England in 1066, radically altering its history and language. And who apparently ordered the port of London to tax foreign merchants. In a practice with a French name. Borrowed from a Flemish source. That had an English analog. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
From duties to dirt
Now, how does scavenger go from a person who collects customs duties to the feeding habits of vultures and wild dogs? After collecting scavage, a scavager (1477, OED) had to clean the streets. We might imagine such merchant-minding was a messy affair, what with all the goods and produce being handled as they entered a city. But in 1503, after challenges from other English cities, Parliament ended London’s practice of scavage, as the duty also charged Englishmen who weren’t citizens of the city of London, including them as foreigners.
Scavagers stopped collecting scavage, but their title stuck, as they continued collecting rubbish as they swept the streets. By the mid-1500s, English speakers had added the unetymological ‘n’ to scavenger and, by the late 1500s, were extending the word to various figurative ‘removers of dirt’ and ‘dirty workers’. For instance, in his 1614 A Cheap and Good Husbandry for the Well-ordering of Beasts and Fowls, English author Gervase Markham observes in his section on swine, again with spelling updated:
For to speak truly of the swine, he is the husbandman’s best scavenger, and the housewife’s most wholesome sink, for his food and living is by that which would else rot in the yard make it beastly, and breed no good manure, or being cast down the ordinary sink in the house breed noisome smells, corruption, and infection…
Feeling peckish? The following year, Markham published a cookbook, The English Huswife, which many consider to contain the earliest known recipe for Banbury cake. Now there’s an idea for a technical challenge on the Great British Bake Off…
Since the 1600s, scavenger has largely gone on to refer to animals that feed on dead organisms, especially carrion, and, by analogy, humans who rummage through refuse. Scavenge – shortened from scavenger in a fairly common process called back-formation, which also yielded words like laze from lazy and edit from editor – is first found for ‘cleaning out dirt’ in 1644, later generalized to any sort of waste-ferreting by James Joyce in his 1922 Ulysses. A scavenger hunt, a game in which a people try to find a number of miscellaneous items, usually in a large outdoor area using cryptic clues and within a time limit, is found as early as 1936.
We might say the English language – as we’ve seen from the bits and bobs, the changes and ranges of the word scavenger – is quite the capable scavenger itself.