Old Scratch

Months ago at the prison bible study Herb, my co-teacher, was leading a prayer. Herb is a Baby Boomer and a son of the South. I'm Gen X and a transplanted Northerner. So we learn a bit from each other generationally and regionally.

Anyway, when Herb was leading the prayer he said, "And Lord, protect us from Old Scratch."

After the prayer was over I asked aloud, "Who is Old Scratch?"

Herb was incredulous. Didn't I know that Old Scratch was the Devil? I did not. Nor, it seemed, did any of the guys in the class.

Apparently, Old Scratch is a name for the Devil that was more widely known a generation or so ago. It apparently started in New England but eventually took hold in the South. Here's the entry from The Free Dictionary:
Old Scratch
n. Chiefly Southern U.S.
The Devil; Satan.

[Probably alteration of scrat, from Middle English, hermaphrodite goblin, from Old Norse skratte, wizard, goblin.]

Regional Note: Old Scratch, like Old Nick, is a nickname for the devil. In the last century it was widely used in the eastern United States, especially in New England, as is evident from the Devil's name for himself in the Stephen Vincent Benét short story "The Devil and Daniel Webster." Now the term has been regionalized to the South. Old Scratch is attested in the Oxford English Dictionary from the 18th century onward in Great Britain as a colloquialism: "He'd have pitched me to Old Scratch" (Anthony Trollope, 1858). The source of the name is probably the Old Norse word skratte, meaning "a wizard, goblin, monster, or devil."
In literature Aunt Polly describes Tom Sawyer as being "full of the Old Scratch" because of his rebellious and mischievous ways. In A Christmas Carol during the visions of the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come Scrooge overhears a conversation describing his death: "Old Scratch has got his own at last."

I find the name Old Scratch delightful. I now use it all the time. I've even gone so far as to introduce the name to Freedom Fellowship, the church Herb and I attend on Wednesday nights. And it's slowly catching on. The name is too quirky and fun to be allowed to slip away.

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22 thoughts on “Old Scratch”

  1. That's interesting.  I've been reading movie reviews this weekend for Hellbound?

    In the fundamentalist indoctrination of my youth, Fear (with a capital 'F') was evoked with endless talk about hell and the devil.  This terrified me!

    With all due respect to Herb, do men in prison need to be indoctrinated in fear?  I was figuring that they needed the message of love more than the suggestion that they should be afraid...

    Have I missed something important here?

  2. To me, the name "Old Scratch" robs the devil of power and actually makes him less scary. It almost seems playful--not that I think sin should be taken lightly. But I do enjoy the thought of being so firmly held in the palm of God's hand that I can have a nickname for the one who tries to stand opposed to him. Almost like an evil character in a melodrama with a big mustache.  Sorry, Old Scratch, you have been foiled again! I am sure this thought sounds simplistic, but anything that keeps sin from having power over me in the tiniest way is a plus.

  3. Thanks Jana, I've been keenly interested to see the responses of others on this post...  Yes, I see your point, to some extent.  Openly talking about our fear demystifies and reduces anxiety.  But in the case of those who have had fear-based theology drilled into their heads from an early, impressionable age -- and I can speak from experience here -- I think it is not enough to simply name and confront the object of the fear (e.g., the devil, a/k/a "Old Scratch").  An equal or more powerful focus has to replace the negative.  You know about the overwhelming power of God's love.  I'll bet those poor men in prison, who are kind of in hell right now, probably aren't too sure about that...  I mean, if I understand this correctly, the prayer was to the God who is able to keep us in the security of His love -- for Him to protect us from "Old Scratch."  If God's love is so secure, why do we need Him to protect us from "Old Scratch?"  Confusing only to me?

  4. Well, I think it is a very far stretch to say that a prayer for protection is "indoctrination in fear."  The men live in an evil and violent world. A satanic world. Thus we regularly pray that God protect them.

  5. I am sure that I cannot begin to comprehend the reality of prison life (the violence and misery of it).  But I hold to my question (and it is a question):  If it were me, in prison or in any threatening, insecure situation, it would not help me *at all* to have someone pray that the big, scary Satan be kept from overtaking me.  An unseen monster is so much more scary.  Even if given a cute name like "Old Scratch."  The mere suggestion/reminder of this "entity" would be enough to divert my thinking from peace and love...

    Is a person strengthened to resist the power of "sin" by pointing out the danger from Satanic/demonic control or influence?  Did one of the men bring up a fear of the devil?  I don't talk about this *ever* at the nursing home, with my friends who are experiencing perhaps the hardest part of their lives.  Unless one of them were to ask me point blank, and then I would try to reassure them.  Am I in denial?  Perpetuating a lie?  I prefer to encourage, as I would wish it to be done unto me.  With my own children, I find that encouraging is so much more helpful than negativity...  How are we in troublesome, weak circumstances of life like "little children" in our faith.  It is harsh to preach Satan and hell under those circumstances is it not?

    How does this jibe with the exploration of Universal Salvation/Reconciliation that you put forth here, Dr. Beck?  Thanks for your response.  ~Peace~

  6. "Old Scratch" is a Midwestern regionalism, too --- or at least in the part of the Midwest where I live. It's used most often mischeviously, I think. I like to think of "Old Scratch" as my personal indwelling demon, poking, prodding, teasing and tempting, trying to counteract the indwelling Light. Some days I just laugh at him and he goes away, other days I have to poke back and too often I give into temptation and live to regret it. Some days he's just michevious; other days, he's downright evil. But he's part of me, I need to be aware of that and calling him "Old Scratch" helps.

  7. The only explanation I have is that the men in the prison are already working with a robust vision of the demonic. This isn't something we are indoctrinating or inculcating into them. For my part, I'm just speaking their language. These men experience themselves as doing battle with, everyday, a dark moral and dehumanizing force. A force that doesn't want them to love, a force that is trying to get them to be callous and violent. Thus, for them prayers of protection from the satanic is a prayer about helping them to love.

    1 John 3.10
    This is how we know who the children of God are and who the children of
    the devil are: Anyone who does not do what is right is not a child of
    God; nor is anyone who does not love his brother.

  8. Thanks, Dr. Beck.  I recognize the need to understand (literally, stand *under* or come alongside, at least) in speaking the language of those with whom you are sharing the Gospel (i.e., Good News).  I also recognize the need to acknowledge the very real (physical) threats.  How to transcend those assaults and "love" the prison guard who is cruel and abusive?  Or the other prisoners who exert power over the weaker?  Or the society that systematically stacked the deck against these men, to end up where they are to begin with?  To cling to "love" and keep hope alive in such an environment?

    I'm assuming that the admonishment to "do what is right" would imply for the men in prison not to retaliate in kind, when a brother does them wrong.  To actively show compassion for one another (such as the one who trimmed his cell mate's toenails.)  To forgive...bear with one another patiently, peacefully...

  9. "Old scratch" was used in a movie with a "meeting the devil at the crossroads" theme. I think it was the 80's movie "Crossroads," but it may have been "O Brother Where Art Thou?"

  10. Yes, that's what I thought of too. That's set in New England. The very end of that movie is funny and chilling at the same time!

  11. Discussions like this are one reason this blog is so much fun to read, not to mention recognizing the multilevel diversities confronting the nomenclatur!

  12. Dr. Beck, do you think this meme will be more "catchy" than your "How's your cat?" greeting was?

  13. It occurs to me that Old Scratch is in my vocabulary because my family tradition includes reading Dickens's A Christmas Carol once a year.  To quote:

    `How are you.' said one.`How are you.' returned the other.`Well.' said the first. `Old Scratch has got his own at last, hey.'`So I am told,' returned the second. `Cold, isn't it.'`Seasonable for Christmas time. You're not a skater, I suppose.'`No. No. Something else to think of. Good morning.'Not another word. That was their meeting, their conversation, and their parting.

  14. May the Devil make a ladder of your backbones - While he is picking apples in the garden of Hell. Play with the Devil and the Devil will play with you.

  15. Oh and remember hell is the highest reward that the Devil can offer for being a servant of his.

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