In A Word: The Story Behind “Scrimmage”

Football has given us lots of weird, cool words. Take “scrimmage,” for example. During Saturday night’s Patriots-Broncos game, you’ll hear a lot about the “line of scrimmage,” the point at which each play starts. But there are actually two lines of scrimmage: the offensive line of scrimmage and the defensive line of scrimmage. These are the imaginary vertical planes at either tip of the football before it is put in play and parallel to each team’s end zone.

The space in between the two lines of scrimmage is called the “neutral zone,” a gridiron Switzerland. (“Neutral” comes from the Latin “neuter” which is a combination of ne- “not, no” + uter “either.”) No player can line up in the neutral zone at the beginning of a play except the center, who snaps the ball to the quarterback. When he does, the teams engage in a “scrimmage,” which is an alteration of the word “skirmish.” “Skirmish” derives from the Germanic “skirmen,” which means “to protect or defend.” It has come to have the broader meaning of “a minor or preliminary conflict or dispute.”

At www.etymonline.com, we learn that the meaning of “scrimmage” in rugby and U.S. football today dates from 1857, when it described “a confused struggle between players.” Clearly, the people in charge of definitions back then had never seen a Belichick team play.

Go Pats!

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