What’s a scrimshaw?

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Increase your vocabulary and you’ll make your writing much more precise. That’s why I provide a word of the week. Today’s word: scrimshaw…

Someday soon, I will create a dictionary of the words I’ve seen several hundred times but still have no idea what they mean. It embarrasses me that the word scrimshaw falls onto that list. I feel that as a reasonably well-educated person, I ought to be more familiar with it.

I most recently encountered the word in the delightful Mary Norris memoir, Between You & Me. The story of her role as a copy editor at my favourite magazine, The New Yorker, the book includes a few personal tales as well. Funny, charming and extremely well copy edited, Between You & Me also uses the word scrimshaw. Here is how Norris employed it:

A vitrine displayed a few Melville relics: a scrimshaw letter opener with a walrus served on it, a change purse, a corkscrew.

Fortunately, Wikipedia came to the rescue with a detailed description:

Scrimshaw is the name given to scrollwork, engravings, and carvings done in bone or ivory. Typically it refers to the handiwork created by whalers made from the byproducts from harvesting them from marine mammals. It is most commonly made out of the bones and teeth of sperm whales, the baleen of other whales, and the tusks of walruses. 

The etymology of the word is unknown but may have been derived from the word scrimshander, used in the Herman Melville novel Moby Dick. Scrimshaw is also an English surname, from the mid-12th century. The photo, above, shows an engraving on a walrus tooth.

An earlier version of this post first appeared on my blog on Aug. 23/17.

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