What is the Origin of Scrooge?

It doesn’t matter whether you’ve read A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens; everyone knows the definition of Scrooge: a mean, callous, selfish, money-loving, or miserly person. Most likely, everyone knows a Scrooge in real life.

Dickens introduced Ebenezer Scrooge (and the memorable catchphrase, “Bah, humbug!”) in his classic story of redemption, A Christmas Carol in 1843. A Christmas Carol is the first and best known of the five Christmas books that Dickens wrote. Early in the novel, Scrooge makes quite an impression: “a squeeezing, wrenching, grasping, scarping, clutching, covetous old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint from which no steel had ever struck out a generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster.” In short, Scrooge was very much like Mr. Potter, the um, Scrooge-like banker from Bedford Falls from another Christmas classic, A Wonderful Life.

The investigation into the origins of the name Scrooge starts by examining an earlier Dickens novel, The Old Curiosity Shop (1841). “Kit had hit a man on the head with the handkerchief of apples for ‘scrowdging’ his parent with unnecessary violence, and there was a great uproar. (Ch. 39)” According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the word “scrowdging” is a variant spelling of the word “scrouging.” The colloquialsim, “to scrouge” means to crush, screw, squeeze or crowd. The word first appeared in print in 1755 and the OED lists several variants: scroodge, scrooge (Eureka!), scroudge, scrowge, skrouge. The word scrouge can be traced further back to “scruze” or “scruse” (same meaning) that appeared in Spenser’s The Fairie Queene (II, xi) in 1590. Both “scrouge” and “scruze” are derived from the 13th-century Anglo-French word “escorge,” a back formation from the Old French “escorgier” (to whip) and Vulgar Latin “excorrigiare” (out or off+ whip).

Later in A Christmas Carol (Stave Four) as Mrs. Dilbert goes through Scrooge’s belongings after his death, she refers to him as an “old screw,” a slang term for  miser: “If he wanted to keep ’em after he was dead, a wicked old screw, why wasn’t he natural in his lifetime?” This use reinforces the meaning of scrouge/Scrooge.

The investigation ends by delving into the diaries of Dickens. A prolific author, Dickens routinely collected real names — the usual and unusual — for his novels and short stories. In June of 1841 Dickens had been invited to speak at a dinner held in his honor in Edinburgh, Scotland. He was an avid walker while developing and writing his novels. In keeping with this custom, Dickens decided to walk around the city to clear his mind before his lecture. According to his diaries he happened on the Canongate Kirkyard graveyard where he observed a gravestone that read: “Ebenezer Scroggie , meal man, died 1836.” Dickens misread “meal man” (a corn merchant) as “mean man.” Dickens was taken aback by the frankness of the inscription; he wrote in his diary: “it must have shrivelled Scroggie’s soul to be remembered through eternity only for being mean seemed the greatest testament to a life wasted.” 

Ebenezer Lennox Scroogie was born in Kirkcaldy, Fife. His mother was the niece of the economist Adam Smith. Scroogie found great success as a grain merchant, vintner, and town councillor. Ironically, Scroogie was more Fezziwig than Scrooge. He was wealthy; however, Scroogie was well known for his generosity, jovial disposition, and gluttony (he had a child out of wedlock with a servant and he interrupted the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland by grabbing the buttocks of Countess of Mansfield during a lively debate). Great Scot! Sadly, the graveyard that inspired one of the most famous characters in literature was lost when the graveyard in Edinburgh was redeveloped in 1932.

Incidentally, the name “Ebenezer” is a combination of two Hebrew words (Even “stone”+  Haezer “help”) that mean “stone of help.”  Indeed, the name Ebenezer Scrooge, thanks to the serendipitous connection between Dickens and Scroogie, is a devilish oxymoron that cleverly mirrors the protagonist’s contrasting dispositions at the outset and conclusion of the novel.

Thus, for over 150 years, Scrooge has stood proudly in the pantheon of well-known, influential people who never lived (joining among others: Don Quixote, Ahab, Hamlet, and Sherlock Holmes) due to his ubiquitous presence — particularly during the holidays — in film, theatre, and literary adaptations. A life, no doubt, that Dorian Gray would have envied.

For further reading: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition edited by John Simpson and Edmund Weiner, Oxford University Press (1991). Charles Dickens A to Z by Paul Davis, Facts on File (1998). The Annotated Christmas Carol by Michael Patrick Hearn, Norton (2004). 101 of the Most Influential People Who Never Lived by Allan Lazar, et al, Bristol Park Books (2006).
etymonline.com. Dickens diaries: http://www.dickenslive.com/1841.shtml

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