The ever-observant Nancy Friedman has sent along a screenshot of a Wall Street Journal headline: “Tehran officials say accord is now harder to undo, threaten clawbacks if scuppered.”

Never mind about “clawbacks” for the moment–the thing that caught her, and my, interest is “scuppered.” The OED tells us that the verb “scupper” originated in the late nineteenth century as military slang for “to surprise and massacre.” There followed a “colloquial” twentieth-century meaning, “To defeat, ruin, destroy, put an end to.”  By 1957–when a writer for The Economist noted, “The suspicion is still alive that there would have been secret rejoicing in Whitehall if the French Assembly had scuppered the common market”–it had entered (British) journalese, in a sense similar to that seen in the Wall Street Journal headline.

And it definitely is a Britishism, as seen in this Google Ngram Viewer chart:


I reckon that the recent popularity of “scuppered” is in part due to its aural resemblance to “scuttle”–originally a nautical term meaning to bore holes in the boat for the purpose of sinking it, and in figurative use by the 1888, after which it has been equally popular in the U.S. and U.K. according to Google Ngram Viewer. ( “The day..began with bad news. The Rent Subsidy Bill had been scuttled without opportunity to work on it.” Ladybird Johnson, White House Diaries, 1965.) “Scuppered” may (wrongly) make  journos and subeditors feel that they are using a fresher word than the tired old “scuttled.”

In any case, “scuppered” is gaining a foothold among U.S. writers, who may (wrongly) feel that using a Britishism makes them seem cool. It has appeared in the New York Times five times in 2016, first from the pen of columnist Maureen Dowd:

Of course, if [Hillary Clinton] had been a better listener on her health care initiative and the Iraq invasion, those two towering issues might not have scuppered her.

And most recently from the pen of former Harvard president Lawrence Summers, who wrote for the December 5 edition:

A trade deal between the European Union and hardly threatening Canada was almost scuppered by a recalcitrant Belgian province concerned about the effects of globalization on local workers.

16 thoughts on ““Scuppered”

  1. Isn’t a scupper the hole on a ship’s deck that lets water run back into the sea or lake or whatever. Seems to me it’s come to mean something like going overboard. Another creeping Britishism that is also used quite liberally in soccer commentary! Along with the dreaded at “sixes and sevens.”

    1. I’ve sailed yachts all my life and I agree that “scuppers” are the holes along the deck to let sea water drain away. I’m not even going to bother to look this word up. After 50 odd years, I’m not changing!!
      So to be “Scuppered.” or to be on your “Scuppers,” for sailors, means you have so little freeboard, or are so low in the water, you are in imminent danger of sinking.

      1. Bingo! I’ve heard it in the context of a player’s aborted move to another team … “Joe Smith’s transfer to No Hope United was scuppered by his outrageous salary request” …

      2. Oh I wish I’d just kept quiet. My wife says her Scottish grandmother kept coal in a bucket beside the fire. She called this bucket a “coal scuttle.”

  2. Both “scupper” and “scuttle” refer to a hole in a ship. Scupper: “An opening in a ship’s side on a level with the deck to allow water to run away.” Scuttle: “A square or rectangular hole or opening in a ship’s deck smaller than a hatchway, furnished with a movable cover or lid, used as a means of communication between deck and deck; also a similar hole in the deck or side of a ship for purposes of lighting, ventilation, etc.” But “scuttle” as a verb: “To cut or bore a hole or holes in the sides or bottom of (a vessel, boat, etc. for the purpose of sinking her).”

    1. I appreciate your post and again, without looking up the definitions, my sailing friends I’m sure would only ever use the term “scuttle” as a verb meaning to deliberately sink your own ship. I’m really interested in your post as It never occurred to me that this word would be particularly British! ..Always learning!!

      1. Ah but we do, we do. Lots of us have those modern multi-fuel burners. They take logs and lovely Polish coal.

      2. Enjoy the “lovely Polish coal” while you can, Sammy. Hardly any more is being exported these days – and it’s mainly lignite anyway! Cough, cough…

    1. Ben – many apologies

      Re-reading, I realise I misinterpreted your previous comment that ‘ “scuttle” is not particular British’. Maybe it was a typo. But I think I not have misread your post if particular had been used as an adverb rather than an adjective.

      Is what you wrote a normal construction in the States?

      BTW – discovered this in your “Index of Entries” page.
      David Lincoln Brooks | April 23, 2013 at 9:05 am
      … “Are we still expected to give a speech, or has that idea been kicked into the long grass?” (ie.scuttled)…

  3. The New Oxford American Dictionary says:
    scupper 1 |ˈskəpər|
    noun (usu. scuppers)
    a hole in a ship’s side to carry water overboard from the deck.
    • an outlet in the side of a building for draining water.
    late Middle English: perhaps via Anglo-Norman French from Old French escopir ‘to spit’; compare with German Speigatt, literally ‘spit hole.’
    scupper 2 |ˈskəpər|
    verb [ with obj. ] chiefly Brit.
    sink (a ship or its crew) deliberately.
    • informal prevent from working or succeeding; thwart: plans for a casino were scuppered by a public inquiry.
    late 19th cent. (as military slang in the sense ‘kill, esp. in an ambush’): of unknown origin. The sense ‘sink’ dates from the 1970s.

    I remember looking up “scuppers” after hearing instructions for dealing with the drunken sailor: “Put him in the scuppers with the hose pipe on him.”

    And…in case you wondered about “scuttlebutt,” meaning ‘gossip,’ the NOAD says: “ORIGIN early 19th cent. (denoting a water butt on the deck of a ship, providing drinking water): from scuttled butt. Sailors would traditionally exchange gossip when they gathered at the scuttlebutt for a drink of water.”

  4. A letter in yesterday’s Evening Standard from Eric Brown:
    Given how effortlessly we adopt so many Americanisms into our speech, the rejection by the Wall Street Journal of the British word “scupper” is depressingly insular: Americans should rejoice at other forms of English, given that President Obama used our word “queue” in the Brexit debate.

  5. “The day..began with bad news. The Rent Subsidy Bill had been scuttled without opportunity to work on it.”

    I would read that as implying that the proposers of the bill had withdrawn it. (Because naval scuttling is something you do to ships you yourself own, or at least have full control over.) Replacing “scuttled” with “scuppered” would instead imply ‘enemy’ action, as it were. Not the same thing at all, to my British ears. Would Americans really regard the two versions as mere stylistic variants?

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