Andrew Marc Greene e-mails: “My son’s fourth-grade class was debating whether paper on which one scribbles offhand notes is scrap paper or scratch paper. Scrap paper describes where it comes from, and scratch paper defines what it’s used for. We were wondering if the phonetic similarity is just coincidence, or if one term was derived from the other.”
For speakers of American English, at least, the dividing line between scratch paper and scrap paper is none too clear. The linguist Bert Vaux conducted an online survey of American dialects from 2000 to 2005, and he included this question: “What do you call paper that has already been used for something or is otherwise imperfect?” More than 10,000 people responded, and the overall results were evenly split, with about 31 percent saying scratch paper and an equal number saying scrap paper. A third survey choice garnered 36 percent: “Scratch paper is still usable (for example, the paper you bring to do extra work on a test); scrap paper is paper that isn’t needed anymore and can be thrown away.”
Dig deeper into Vaux’s data, and you’ll find distinct regional patterns: respondents from the West and Midwest prefer scratch paper, while Northeasterners go for scrap paper. (Southerners are more likely to split the difference and choose the third option.) Outside of the United States, scratch paper is rarely used, and it gets marked as an Americanism in dictionaries from Oxford and Cambridge. British speakers plump for scrap paper — or if the activity of quick note-taking is foregrounded, scribbling paper. Likewise what some Americans would call a scratch pad is known in Britain as a scribbling pad or scribbling block.
Given this state of affairs, you might think scratch paper shows up much later than scrap paper in the documentary record. The Google Books database shows scrap paper in use from 1838, but surprisingly enough it also contains an instance of scratch paper from five years earlier, in colonial India of all places. The Bombay Gazette bemoaned that the books in the local literary-society’s library “have been most unmercifully scribbled on,” and “various attempts have been made to put a stop to such a scratch-paper practice.”
The Bombay example turns out to be something of an outlier, however. First, even if those library vandals were scratching away on book pages, that’s different from scratch paper in its later incarnation as cheap paper, loose or in a pad, for jotting notes. Scratch paper and its British counterpart scribbling paper did not truly take off until the late 19th century, no doubt helped along by advances in wood-pulp papermaking and the mass production of pencils. Scrap paper, meanwhile, had already been in circulation as a name for waste paper that could be recycled or reused, with note-taking emerging as one prominent type of reuse.
Scratch paper, then, likely owes some of its success in American usage to the fact that it happens to resemble the more widespread scrap paper. That would make scratch paper a potential “eggcorn,” to use a term coined by linguists for a misconstrued word or phrase that gets reshaped with a new semantic motivation. Scratch paper makes sense in a new way, as it describes the note-taker’s hurried writing rather than the cheap source of the paper. Since the two variants are now equally available to Americans, the choice between scrap paper and scratch paper ultimately comes down to a question of the medium vs. the message.