This one came to me as I was cooking the other day. I am currently trying to make most meals “from scratch” these days and it occurred to me to wonder where the expression came from.
There’s a marvellous discussion of the term at Phrasefinder, also known as Phrasedoctor: http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/start-from-scratch.html – this wonderful blogger has done the hard work for us, and has made a couple of references which help to back up the information.
Basically, the idea came about from sport (various sports claim the credit for the first usage, but cricket may be a contender), in which start lines or batting lines are “scratched” into the ground. Phrasefinder mentions a 1778 reference for cricket, so that is pretty early. Starting from the scratch line meant starting with no particular advantage or disadvantage. They also quote a running reference from 1853 in which racers start so many yards “from scratch” or from the start line, depending on their handicap.
World Wide Words mentions that the sporting reference can also be found in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), and brings up the boxing history (as did Phrasedoctor) which brought into being phrases like “toe the scratch” and eventually gave us “up to scratch,” meaning acceptable.
I have heard “scratch team” and “scratch match” in sport myself, and read about it several times, so it all makes sense to me. Cooking from scratch or doing anything from scratch – from the ground up – is a logical progression in meaning.
Word Detective http://www.word-detective.com/2010/06/from-scratch/ has a marvellous discussion of the origins of the word scratch as well as its origins in phrases such as “up to scratch,” “start from scratch,” etc. This blogger also talks about the more modern use in which scratch means money – first used in 1914 in this way, according to etymonline.com – http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=scratch – and both sites mention other uses of scratch in slang as well – “Old Scratch,” meaning the Devil, from the Old Norse skratte, meaning goblin.
Etymonline also discusses the meaning of “scratch that” to mean cancel a plan, which originates in the 1680s and eventually changes to the meaning of cancelling a participant from a list of competitors, giving us the meaning of withdraw a horse from a race (1865). None of these references are provided, unfortunately.
I found it particularly interesting to discover from Word Detective that the original word “scratch” came from two Middle English words, “scrat” and “crach.” I haven’t checked this out myself, as my OED membership has sadly expired, yet to be renewed, but it sounds great, you can definitely see this progression.
Today, Urban Dictionary doesn’t have anything new and profound to say, the two meanings listed include a cooking reference and a “from the beginning” – pretty standard really. http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=from%20scratch