Ableist Word Profile: Scab

Welcome to Ableist Word Profile, a (probably intermittent) series in which staffers will profile various ableist words, talk about how they are used, and talk about how to stop using them. Ableism is not feminism, so it’s important to talk about how to eradicate ableist language from our vocabularies. This post is marked 101, which means that the comments section is open to 101 questions and discussion. Please note that this post contains ableist language used for the purpose of discussion and criticism; you can get an idea from the title of the kind of ableist language which is going to be included in the discussion, and if that type of language is upsetting or triggering for you, you may want to skip this post.

I was working on something the other day and I unconsciously used the word “scab” to refer to temporary non-union workers brought in to break up a strike. And, as soon as I finished typing it, I said “hey, wait a minute!” So I took a break and researched the origins of the word to confirm my suspicions that it was ableist, and made a note to do an ableist word profile on it at some point in the reasonably near future.

Workers’ rights is a big topic of interest to me, as is organized labour and the use of unionization to advocate for the welfare of workers. Thus, I do not look fondly upon strikebreakers. I’ve always heard them called “scabs” and used “scab” myself without really thinking about its origins, but it takes only a cursory glance and thought to realize that the word is ableist; after all, what’s a scab? It’s a crust that forms on a sore or wound. And some people with disabilities have conditions which cause chronic scabbing. In fact, I have a condition which causes chronic scabbing, because I have eczema, so I’ve been using a word which is injurious to me, personally, for years.

“Scab” actually entered English around 1250, in the sense of “skin disease.” Scab as in “crust which forms on a sore” didn’t come into use until almost 200 years later, and “scab” as in “strikebreaker” is from the early 1800s. The word is derived from the Old English for “scratch/itch,” and is closely related to “scabies,” a condition which causes intense itching. And subsequent scratching. And, often, scabbing.

Why did we start referring to strikebreakers as “scabs”? We’ve actually got to take a trip back in time to 1590 to find out, because that’s when the word first started being used to describe a “despicable person,” since apparently people with scabs are despicable. These origins may have some class overtones as well, since people of lower class status are more likely to injure themselves/have untreated wounds and poorly managed skin conditions which result in scabbing. At any rate, the term was borrowed in the late 1700s to refer to people who didn’t join trade unions, and this use explains why we use it to refer to strikebreakers, since some people view strikebreakers as rather despicable.

The ableist origins of this word are clear; we’re using yet another term used to describe a medical condition/symptom as a pejorative. In this case, the medical uses of this word are alive and well. Everyone understands the meaning of scab in relation to health, and many people are also familiar with the pejorative use of the word. As someone who’s actually pretty scabby at the moment, I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that I never really connected the dots with this word, but now that I have, I’m eliminating it from my word use.

So, what’s an alternative to “scab,” for those who want to be able to say “temporary workers brought in to break up a strike” in a way which conveys sufficient rage and irritation? Well, there’s always “strikebreaker.”

I think it’s also important to note here that while I find the actions of strikebreakers pretty despicable, it’s a complicated issue. Many people hired as strikebreakers are actually unaware of the fact that they are being hired to break a strike, with employers transporting them in such a way that they are not aware they are passing a picket line. Companies have also been known to use people who do not speak the language in a region where a strike is occurring, with the goal of keeping workers ignorant about the circumstances of their employment. Some people may also feel some moral qualms about being involved in unionbusting activity, but they may be forced to accept work as temporary labourers by their financial positions. Things are never as black and white as we want them to be.

About s.e. smith

s.e. smith is a recalcitrant, grumpy person with disabilities who enjoys riling people up, talking about language, tearing apart poor science reporting, and chasing cats around the house with squeaky mice in hand. Ou personal website can be found at this ain't livin'.

16 thoughts on “Ableist Word Profile: Scab

  1. Huh… somehow I’d always assumed it was a metaphor, and that they were called ‘scabs’ because they were clotting the factory’s figurative ‘bleeding’ of striking workers. The strike is a wound; the temporary worker is the crust making it nearly-healed but not as good as the original or fully-healed skin (the original worker).

    I’m actually kind of disappointed. Just broadening the application of a word already being used to mean ‘despicable person’ is so much more boring to me!

  2. I was completely baffled when I started reading this, because I have never in my life heard “scab” used in anything other than the “my knees are scabbed” context. I didn’t even know it had another meaning, let alone on related unions, etc. Maybe it’s a regional thing? Because there have certainly been plenty of strikes here, but as I said, I’ve never heard “scab” used in this context before.

  3. meloukhia – ‘Strikebreaker’ is no more a substitute for ‘scab’ than ‘woman’ is for ‘bitch’. There are other historic terms for scabs that could be substitutes – ‘knobstick’ is one I heard recently (although I strongly suspect the etymology for that one would be suspect). But to suggest ‘strikebreaker’ is missing the meaning that is being conveyed with the word ‘scab’.

    Caitlin – where do you live? ‘Scab’ is a term with a strong international history – I’d be surprised if there was an area of the English speaking world that didn’t use it, particularly given the internationalist connections among unions. It’s not a word you’d hear on the news though, more on the picket line.
    .-= Maia´s last blog ..Belle Chose: Dollhouse episode 2.03 review =-.

  4. Like Caitlin, I’d never heard of the word ‘scab’ in the context you’re talking about here. I’m in the UK so I have to assume it’s a USian thing?
    .-= Anji´s last blog ..Carnivals! =-.

  5. Your post has me with NIN’s “Only” running through my head.

    I used to scratch myself, especially my hands as a ‘stim’, it always left a lot of scabs. My mom told me I’d better find something to replace it with, or people might think I’m ill or filthy and not want to shake my hands or play with me.
    .-= Norah´s last blog ..I’m the world’s most irregular blogger! =-.

  6. Maia: I’ve never heard the word “scab” used as “strikebreaker” before. When I think of it, I think of scabbed knees. I have heard it used for people borrowing money from mates, eg. “Can I scab some money off you?” but not for strikebreaker before. I can’t seem to make the connection between them.
    I wonder also if strikebreaking is the same thing here as it is in the US, with the same connotations? In my experience it hasn’t been, but I have limited experience.
    .-= PharaohKatt´s last blog ..Positive Experiences with Disability Activism =-.

  7. Hi Maia, I am well aware of the origins of scab and the fact that “strikebreaker” does not, at all, convey the same message.

    But…one of the reasons that “scab” carries such a strong message is because it is ableist, and I’d like to find a forceful alternative which adequately describes these kinds of people which does not add to the marginalization of people with disabilities. I don’t see how using language which hurts me and people like me to insult a group of people I find offensive is at all productive.

    Much as “bitch” carries a very strong and loaded context, which is why some people prefer to see “woman” to “bitch” because “bitch” is a word which has been used to marginalize and control women.

  8. “Scab” is definitely used in Australia, quite a lot, and Google suggests that it’s a common usage in the UK also. Are the commenters who are unaware of this usage very familiar with socialist/labour activism?

  9. I’m in Nova Scotia, and there are quite a few unions, but it may be that I’ve never heard it because I’ve mostly read news reports of the various strikes as opposed to being around the picketers. My mother is a union member, but “scab” is definitely not a word she would use in this context.

  10. Lauredhel: I confess, I am not. As I said, I have limited experience, as well as limited workforce experience. Now that I know of this usage I’ll probably hear it around a lot more.

    All of which isn’t to say that the ableist connotations don’t apply. Clearly they do. A word doesn’t suddenly lose the connotations just because someone is unaware of them.

    As far as scab used in the borrowing money context: do you think this has the same sort of ableist connotations? Possibly class connotations as well as ableist ones; someone who needs to borrow (or scab) money is of a lower social class, and thus more likely to have infected sores etc. So, same connotations really, just used in a different context.
    (Sorry if I’m rambly, I’m a little short on spoons right now).
    .-= PharaohKatt´s last blog ..Positive Experiences with Disability Activism =-.

  11. Interesting post. As for it being an American term, I have definitely heard it used in this context in much of English-speaking Canada.

  12. Not to anyone in particular:
    “Scab” is pretty commonplace in labour circles and beyond out here on the west coast of canada. It has a very specific meaning, that “strikebreaker” simply doesnt convey.

    Just to clarify, the “scab” isnt the strike itself. The “scab” is someone (a worker) who allows themselves to be used by the company to cover up the “wound” of unfair wages, shitty (if any) benefits, hour cuts, etc etc by stepping in and doing the job of striking workers. The issues are definitely overlapping, and complex. Shit is virtually never cut and dry, and is usually laced pretty intensely with racism.

  13. I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that I never really connected the dots with this word, but now that I have, I’m eliminating it from my word use.

    Same here – I’m a trade union activist in the UK, and I’m very familiar with “scab” as synonymous with someone who crosses a picket line/labour brought in to break a strike. I’ll be watching this entry with interest, because I can’t think of anything which might substitute but which has the force of scab.

  14. This what makes “scab” such a challenging word to profile; I haven’t heard any sort of replacement for it. “Strikebreaker” just doesn’t cut it.

  15. I always understood the term scab in the “covering up the wound” context others have mentioned here.

    However, I was never a fan of the term simply because it is a derogatory term, and often the people taking the jobs the strikers have vacated are rather desperate for any money they can earn, thanks to a whole different set of outrageous injustices than the strikers are dealing with, and the whole thing smacks of the “divide and conquer” strategy the privileged use to pit less privileged groups against each other.

    In other words, I’m not sure this is a word that SHOULD be replaced at all.
    .-= Jennifer Kesler´s last blog ..Links of Great Interest 11/06/09 =-.

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