Scab: “A contemptible person”

At a meeting of Variety editors the other day, we got to talking about “scabs” and wondering how that term came to be used to describe a strikebreaker. Being wordsmiths, we couldn’t help looking it up. Here’s what we discovered.

After the obvious definition of a wound covering that we’ve all had on our knee or elbow, Merriam-Webster online defines a scab thusly:

3 a: a contemptible person b (1): a worker who refuses to join a labor union (2): a union member who refuses to strike or returns to work before a strike has ended (3): a worker who accepts employment or replaces a union worker during a strike (4): one who works for less than union wages or on nonunion terms

Wikipedia explains it this way:

Strikebreakers are also known by the derogatory term “scab”. In the early 20th century, strikebreaking was known as “black-legging” — a term borrowed from the Russian socialist movement

and this:

The term “scab” is a highly derogatory and “fighting word” most frequently used to refer to people who continue to work when trade unionists go on strike action. This is also known as crossing the picket line and can result in their being shunned or assaulted.

and this:

People hired to replace striking workers are often derogatively termed scabs by those in favor of the strike. The terms strike-breaker, blackleg, and scab labor are also used. Trade unionists also use the epithet “scab” to refer to workers who are willing to accept terms that union workers have rejected and interfere with the strike action. Some say that the word comes from the idea that the “scabs” are covering a wound. However, “scab” was an old-fashioned English insult. An older word is “blackleg” and this is found in the old folk song, Blackleg Miner, which has been sung by many groups.

From Word Detective.com, we get yet another explanation:

… by about 1590 we were using “scab” to mean “a low or despicable person.” The logic of this derogatory sense is not entirely clear. It most likely stems from the implication that such a scoundrel might well be afflicted with syphilis, which in its advanced stages causes a “scabby” skin condition. Since “scab” already was being used to mean “lowlife creep,” it’s not surprising that by the late 1700s it was being applied to any worker who refused to join an organized trade union movement. As one contemporary source explained in 1792, “What is a scab? He is to his trade what a traitor is to his country…. He first sells the journeymen, and is himself afterwards sold in his turn by the masters, till at last he is despised by both and deserted by all.” By the 19th century, “scab” was being used, primarily in the U.S., to mean a worker willing to cross picket lines to replace a striking worker. The great unionizing drives of the 1930’s then transformed this sense of “scab” from industrial slang into a household word.

So there you go. By any definition, a scab is not someone you really want to associate with.

— Kathy Lyford

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