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Settle a score

Q From Deborah Reese in the USA: I am trying to help a student with a research project. He must find the origins of the idiom, a score to settle or to settle a score.

A Before the days of paper records (or, indeed, widespread literacy), the usual way of keeping count was to cut marks into wooden rods called tallies (hence our verb tally, to count). Tally sticks have been used for thousands of years — Roman numerals evolved out of a system for notching them — and they survived until very recently (tallies were usually split in two lengthways so both parties had an identical record). For example, the English government kept its tax records on tallies until they were abolished in 1826 (the Palace of Westminster was gutted in 1834 because somebody over-enthusiastically burned old tally sticks in a furnace under the House of Lords). Cutting the notches on tallies was called scoring (from Old Norse scora, to make an incision, related to our shear), a word we still use in much the same sense.

From about 1400, score was also the word for a record or an amount due, the total of the score marks on a tally. It became a common word for the total of a tradesman’s or innkeeper’s account. So, to settle the score originally meant just to pay one’s bill. But it acquired the figurative sense of taking revenge on somebody, and that’s usually what we mean by it now.

The same idea is behind our word for the number of points achieved in a game; this was first used in print by the famous Edmund Hoyle (as in according to Hoyle) in his Short Treatise on the Game of Whist of 1742. The word also turns up in several slang phrases or idioms, such as to know the score, to be aware of what’s going on, or to score points off, to outdo somebody. It is also the origin of score for twenty, though we’re not entirely sure how it became linked specifically to that number. A score in music comes from a related idea of engraving or drawing the stave lines.

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Page created 20 May 2000

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 20 May 2000.