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American Speech 77.4 (2002) 419-431

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The Origin of Scrod

George Goebel
Dictionary of American Regional English

In current use, scrod has two closely related senses. In the first, presumably reflecting the perspective of the fishing industry, it is a small—under two-and-a-half-pound—cod or other similar fish, as a haddock, hake, or pollack. In the other, reflecting the perspective of the fish seller and consumer, it is such a fish that has been split and boned, or filleted. In the second sense at least, scrod is probably now widely recognized in the United States, but there is a strong, and justified, popular association with Boston. In fact, as I will show, the word was formerly confined, in this country, to the eastern—but not the southern—coast of New England; it is also well established in Newfoundland, but apparently nowhere else in the English-speaking world.

The etymology of scrod is a problem. Since a satisfactory etymology must account for the earliest attested meanings and forms of the word and also for its geographic distribution, I begin by reviewing the early—that is, chiefly nineteenth-century—evidence bearing on those points. I will concentrate on the U.S. evidence, which has never been satisfactorily assembled, and treat more briefly the Newfoundland evidence, where I have little to add to the excellent treatment in the Dictionary of Newfoundland English (DNE 1982). I then discuss the etymologies that have been proposed, and finally I suggest a new explanation which I believe accounts more satisfactorily for all the evidence.

The earliest known example of scrod dates from 1841. Unfortunately, it tells us little about the meaning of the word, merely describing someone as "supplied with a few ship biscuit, a dried scrod, a bottle of good swizzle" (A Dictionary of Americanisms [DA] 1951). Somewhat more informative is a passage from Joseph Reynolds's Peter Gott, the Cape Ann Fisherman (1856). Summarizing a boyhood fishing venture of the hero, he says:

He worked diligently through the season, and after paying for his dory, his lines and bucket, and his clams for bait, his earnings at the close of the year amounted to eighty dollars, in addition to which he had a pile of nice scrods, and as many salted fish for winter as the family needed. [91-92]

From this it would appear that "scrods" are distinct from salted fish but can be kept for some time. I have not been able to find any biographical information on Reynolds, but some authorial asides suggest that he was a [End Page 419] native or at least a longtime resident of Cape Ann, and his stated purpose is didactic—to give a view of the history and nature of the New England fisheries. It is striking that while he frequently digresses to explain technical terms, he does not regard scrod as needing any explanation.

The only other nineteenth-century examples of scrod in general "literary" contexts that I have found are in two short stories by Harriet Prescott Spofford. 1 Spofford was born in Calais, Maine, and spent most of her adult life in Amesbury, Massachusetts. Both stories are first person narratives; the settings are not explicitly identified but are obviously coastal eastern New England towns of the sort that Spofford knew well.

But the Doctor never threw a glance beyond me, neither at the scrod that Elizabeth's lover had brought him in the last boat-load before the storm, and that in consequence she had browned like a segment of cocoa-nut, nor at the snowy biscuit. . . . [1868, 8]

So I set myself to work, and made the nicest little supper ready—scrod, as brown outside and as white inside as a cocoa-nut is. . . . [1870, 862]

It is evident that to get a clear statement of what scrod is, we need to turn to more technical literature—in this case, books on fish and books on cookery. As for the first, there is a particularly detailed statement in Goode et al. (1884, 201):

In the vicinity of Cape Ann the young Cod, too...


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