Why is a strikebreaker called a scab?
A scab is the hard crust that forms over a wound when it is healing, but in earlier use it meant a disease of the skin. The word comes from the Old Norse *skabb. It’s not attested to in English, however, until the 13th century. From the Old Kentish Sermons, c.1250:
Si lepre [signefieþ] þo sennen, þet scab bi-tokned þo litle sennen.
(Leprosy [signifies] those sins, so that scab betokens those little sins.)
By the end of the 16th century, the word was being used as an insult, denoting a low person, a scoundrel, a rascal. From Robert Greene’s c.1590 The Honorable Historie of Frier Bacon and Frier Bongay:
Loue is such a proud scab, that he will neuer meddle with fooles nor children.
The specialization to labor disputes dates to at least 1777, when the word was used in this sense in Bonner & Middleton’s Bristol Journal:
Whereas the Master Cordwainers have gloried, that there has been a Demur amongst the Men’s and Women’s Men;—we have the Pleasure to inform them, that Matters are amicably settled...The Conflict would not been [sic] so sharp had not there been so many dirty Scabs; no Doubt but timely Notice will be taken of them.
(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)
Copyright 1997-2017, by David Wilton