I believe TLC said it best in their song “No Scrubs: I don’t want no scrub, a scrub is a guy who can’t get no love from me, sitting in the passenger side of his best friend’s ride, trying to holler at me.”  Now everyone knows that the slang meaning of scrub a particular type of person that one would not choose to associate with if, at all possible, or so I thought.   So, where did this term really come from?  In a long search through dictionaries and encyclopedias, I found that scrub did not mean a person at all for many centuries.  In actuality, scrub started out in Old English, as a name of a shrub or tree.

         Let’s begin with a description of the parts of speech for scrub.  As a noun the word is scrub.  The scrub was small, but it was a great attribute to the corner of the house.  The verb tense of scrub can be written as to scrub, thus using a more modern definition of the word.  Mother said that Jamie is to scrub the floor before she returns home.  The particles of the word scrub are, to scrub around.  On Sundays I like to scrub around the house, wearing my old sweats and watching TV.  Past participles of scrub are to be scrubbed.  The floor is to be scrubbed this weekend.  The active voice of scrub can also be used, for example, she scrubs the walls.  And the last use of scrub is as an adjective, such as scrubby.  The walls are looking scrubby with all of the paint chipping and cracking.

         The earliest use of the word scrub, as a noun, is found in the Merriam Webster Collegiate Dictionary. Used as a plant, “a stunted tree or shrub, vegetation consisting chiefly of scrubs, a tract covered with scrub.”  Also used as an animal, “a domestic animal of mixed or unknown parentage and usually inferior conformation.”  Then used as a noun, “a person of insignificant size or standing. A player not belonging to the first string.”  These definitions all originated from the 14th century.

         Today, scrub has many other meanings when used as a noun.  In the late 70s and early 80s, the word scrub was used in protesting.  While workers were on strike, companies needed people to come to work.  These people, who crossed the picket lines, were called scrubs.  Scrub brush is a word that was used more commonly in the later 80s to early 90s.  Meaning a device used to scrub one’s body with.  In the 90s, scrubs refer to the green clothing worn by surgeons during an operation.  These definitions were given to me by a friend, after being asked what scrub means to him.

         The Merriam Webster also defines scrub as a verb.  “To clean with a hard rubbing, to remove by scrubbing, or to subject to friction.”  These definitions came about the late 1500s.
 Let’s first discuss scrub as a noun.

        Around the late 1500s, scrub obtained a meaning pertaining to people.  “A mean insignificant fellow, a person of little account or poor appearance, or a disreputable woman; a prostitute, tart.”  These definitions are slang uses of scrub and can be found in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED).  These definitions were widely used throughout the late 16th through the mid 19th century.

         In the late 19th century scrub was starting to be used as sport jargon.  “A player belonging to a second or weaker team, or a team composed of such player.”  This variation of the word is also found in the OED.  Although it is not commonly used today, this was a popular term for over 60 years.
 According to the OED, in the 19th and 20th centuries, scrub also took such meanings as:  a type of machinery, names of Australian birds, and small American plants.  A “Scrub-Cutter” is and example of a type of machinery used to cut down shrubbery.  An Example of an Australian bird is the “scrub-fowl,-hen.”  While some examples of American plants are:  “Scrub Palmetto,” “Scrub Vine” and “Scrubwood.”

         Now let’s discuss scrub as a verb.
 The most popular uses of the word scrub are those related to cleaning.   The OED defines these as “the action or an act of scrubbing or one who scrubs. ”  But less common uses refer to driving, “movement of part of a tyre over the road surface while in contact with it.”  Slang uses of the verb scrub are used in aeronautics, “a cancellation or abandonment, specifically of a flying mission.”  Slang verb uses were also used to describe royalty, “the third grade in the quality of the heads of teasels.”

         Today, scrub has several main meanings, the first type, as a noun.  This usage refers to dirty, unpopular people or objects.  For example, Tim is such a scrub, he plays for the Falcons, and their team has yet to win a game.  When Dad came home last night he told us that 8 scrubs came to work yesterday.  The doctor put on his scrubs before entering the operating room.

        The second type of word usage, of scrub, is a verb, meaning to clean.  In cleaning, the meaning has not changed much from the early definitions.  Some examples of this usage of scrub are as follows.  Janie scrubbed the walls and the floors. Steve scrubbed the tub, with a heavy cleaner.  These uses refer to a rough cleaning action.

         The third meaning of scrub is the slang version.  This meaning uses many forms.  As a noun, verb or participle.  The boy is a scrub, his clothes are tattered and torn and it looks like he hasn’t bathed in months.  The bushes look scrubby, they are bare and in need of pruning.  Scrub is an insulting term, meaning awful in appearance.  But scrub is also used as a personality trait.  John is such a scrub, all he does is sit around the house all day waiting for his friends to get home so he can go mooch off of them.  Meaning a person usually does nothing with their life, and gets by using other people.

         All of these word uses of scrub relay a negative image, feeling or emotion.  As a result, I believe this is how the slang version of scrub came about.  The slang meaning of scrub is a nasty dirty person.  Although today, it is used more freely.

         Slang, is a language that is used by everyone.  Slang can be the talk used by teenagers amongst themselves or an area’s language.  For example, teenagers will greet one another, “Hey!  What’s up?”  Meaning what’s new with you?  While the other use of slang is that of an area.  Take Pittsburghese, for example.  “It’s snowing and the roads are a little slippy outside.”  Both of these are examples of a group or locations own language.  Both are similar in the fact that no one, outside of the group, would understand what some one was saying, if they were not familiar with that type of slang.

         There are many words that are related to scrub, but none that hold true to all of the meanings.  As a noun, scrub is related to undergrowth and bushes, although neither of these terms convey the same meaning if used as a verb.  As a verb, scrub is related to the words:  scour, wash and clean.  But again the verb synonyms do not deliver the same imagery as scrub.  Mary cleaned the pot with the scouring pad.  Josh washed the dishes.  Tammy cleaned her room.  Even though all of these words are related to scrub, none give the impression of a rough pressing action.  A person cannot look scourly or washy, but they can look act and do cleaning; therefore making clean the closest related word to scrub.  Although, clean gives a positive impression on people, the opposite of the word scrub.

         Scrub is a word that’s been around for hundreds of years, and is already been admitted into Standard American English.  Although the meanings change from time to time, if you look, you’ll find they all have some common roots to the original meaning.    All of the definitions and uses of scrub, pertain to dirty objects or acts.  A scrubby person, or to scrub the floor both convey a message that something is dirty or in need of cleaning.  Both terms convey a negative image.
I asked three generations of my family what the first thing they thought of when the heard the word scrub.  My grandmother replied:  cleaning.  My mother replied:  floor.  And my brother stated bluntly:  Gayle, his ex-fiancée!  This non-scientific research method shows that scrub has stayed relatively the same through out the years, although just recently has the slang usage come in to acceptance, with the younger generations.

        I use the word scrub practically everyday, in every form.  I scrub the pots and pans after dinner, and the bushes around my neighbors’ house are scrubby.  But when talking about the slang use of scrub, I’d have to agree with TLC, “I don’t want no scrub, a scrub is a guy that can’t get no love from me!”

Kerrie Cramer