Scram!

here comes the Axe Man

SCRAM, v. This US slang dating from the 1920s, meaning “leave!”, is probably short for “scramble.”

There’s a chance “scram” came from German “schramm,” the command form of the verb “schrammen,” which means to scrape or to scratch. Or maybe also to depart? My English-language etymological sources keep claiming “depart” as a translation, but none of the German-English dictionaries I looked at have offered me that, so German-speaking readers are welcome to weigh in: does “schrammen” also mean “depart”?

I think the “scramble” explanation is the simplest and most likely, but the German verb was in a couple of different sources so I figured I’d mention it.

“Scram” also has another meaning: “the sudden shutting down of a nuclear reactor usually by rapid insertion of control rods.” This definition comes with its own folk etymology—a fictional origin story—that is so hilariously nonsense I have to share it, right from the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s blog:

According to the legend, Enrico Fermi created the acronym, Safety Control Rod Axe Man, for Norman Hilberry. It was Hilberry’s assignment that day to kill a possible runaway reaction by using an axe to cut a rope to allow the backup safety control rod to drop into the pile.

This is like one of those chain emails that ends “And that student’s name… was Albert Einstein.” Except it’s Enrico Fermi. Safety Control Rod Axe Man. L.M.A.O.

Any time you hear that the origin of a word is an acronym—Fornication Under Consent of King, anyone?—you should turn your doubts up to 11. Scuba and laser, sure. Scram? Get out of here.


[I have removed a couple paragraphs here about the use of “scram” in a fan translation of the Chinese novel Tian Guan Ci Fu (Heaven Official’s Blessing) by Mo Xiang Tong Xiu because I am told they came off as mocking, which was not my intention and I regret causing hurt.]


I did read some books this week, mostly small-r romance novels by Elizabeth Hoyt, but I documented my reading of Thief of Shadows (m/f, both cishet, historical) pretty extensively on twitter and I’m too tired to rehash it with actual paragraphs.

Emma Barry also made some really great comments, starting with this tweet, in case you too would like to talk about capitalism in historical romance novels:


Lastly, this is not related to words or books, but it is related to art history, Black history, and queer history: the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum has a show about Thomas McKeller, the Black model who was John Singer Sargent’s muse. The museum is in lockdown, but they made this video about the show and it’s very moving and a great way to spend ten minutes of your time:


See you next Sunday!