Q&A: ‘Scold’ or ‘scald’

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, scold comfort…

Q: Hi AWC, I got corrected the other day for using ‘scold’ and ‘scald’ incorrectly.

A: Did they scold you for doing so?

Q: Ummm I’m not sure. Is that the one that burns you?

A: Haha, no, it’s the other one! 

Q: Can we discuss the difference between them today?

A: We certainly can. The confusion naturally comes in that they both sound very alike, even identical depending on your accent.

Q: Exactly. But they clearly have different meanings.

A: Of course. Let’s start with the older of the two verbs. And that is ‘scald’ – arriving in English around the year 1200 and defined by Macquarie Dictionary as ‘to burn or affect painfully with, or as with, hot liquid or steam’.

Q: Nasty. I suppose they didn’t have thermostats on their hot water systems back then.

A: Well, no. Their hot water system was fire.

Q: Yes yes, I’m sure it was still very good. 

A: No, literally fire. Under a cauldron.

Q: Ooooh. Yeah, that makes sense. 

A: It makes even more sense when you find out that it all comes from ‘calidus’ – the Latin word for hot. This went on to give us Late Latin (Latin used by writers in the third to sixth centuries) ‘excaldere’ (‘to bathe in hot water’) and the Old French ‘eschalder’ – meaning to ‘heat, boil up, bubble’. 

Q: Toil and trouble!

A: Exactly. So words like ‘cauldron’ and ‘caldera’ (a volcano cavity) both originate from the same place as ‘scald’.

Q: Actually, while we’re here, what’s the deal with first-degree, second-degree and third-degree burns? I can never remember which way round it is. Are ‘first degree’ the worst or ‘third degree’?

A: Good question. Clearly humans have been burning themselves throughout history – long before we had words like ‘scald’ to describe it. But it wasn’t until the height of the industrial age – fuelled by steam and furnaces – that a burns classification was created. 

Q: Occupational hazard!

A: Indeed. Two Germans in the 1700s created the first ‘degree’ scale, quickly followed in the early 1800s by two French surgeons – Baron Dupuytren’s five-degree scale and the three-degree scale by Alexis Boyer (most commonly used today). Meanwhile, the first thing resembling a ‘burns unit’ opened in London in 1843.

Q: And how does the classification work?

A: First degree burns are the LEAST severe. Defined as ‘erythema’ – a skin redness or inflammation. Second degree burns are classified as ‘blistering of the skin leading to superficial ulceration.’ Finally, third degree burns are ‘tissue disorganisation leading to a dry yellow crust.’

Q: Ouch.

A: Ready for ‘scold’ now?

Q: Yes, this is the only time I have ever been eager for a ‘scolding’.

A: The noun ‘scold’ is actually older – taken from the old Norse poet ‘skald’ and originally meaning ‘shrewish, foul-mouthed woman’. Even today, the word survives as a habitually abusive person (usually a woman). It’s pretty rare though.

Q: I guess we can see where the verb comes from!

A: That’s right. By the late 1300s, ‘scolden’ was to ‘be abusive or quarrelsome’ – taken directly from the noun. It was initially a lot more heavy-handed with the abusiveness, but by the 1700s it had calmed down somewhat to be more along the lines of chide or find fault with’.

Q: The taming of the shrewish woman!

A: Haha, yep. Of course, you can still be scolded heavily by someone.

Q: A third degree sick burn!

A: Exactly.

Q: Why do you think people get them confused?

A: Well, the obvious reason is that they’re just one letter apart! Also, both words aren’t used a lot anymore. ‘Scald’ is typically replaced with something less ambiguous, like ‘burn’. Meanwhile, while ‘to scold’ someone is still found, synonyms like ‘berate’, ‘criticise’, ‘lecture’, ‘reprimand’ or even ‘admonish’ are often used instead.

Q: I hasten to add ‘chasten’ too! Anyway, what's the easiest way to remember which is which?

A: Try this one. ‘SCOLD’ has the word cold in it. And ‘SCALD’ is all about hot things, like burning. Sorted!

Q: I don’t normally like it when you go all hot and cold on me, but this is a rule I can get behind!

Do you have a question you’d like us to explore? Email it to us today!


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