A recent news item opined that some Republicans wishing to scuttle the Affordable Care Act might be planning to "start from scratch." Do you suppose that meant they would begin by putting a band-aid on a minor scratch? No, probably the writer meant they would "begin anew." But how did this meaning develop?
Scratch is a blend of two Middle English words, scratten and cracchen, both of which meant to “scrape or dig with claws or nails.” From this definitioin the noun scratch was derived, meaning “a slight tear in the skin.”
The phrase start from scratch originated in the sporting world, around the eighteenth century, where the starting point was denoted by “scratching” it into the ground. This might apply to the starting point for a race, the marking of batting and bowling creases in cricket, or the indication of the boxers’ positions in a prizefight. The first recorded instance of scratch being used as a sporting term was in 1778, in “The Hambledon Song,” an ode to cricket by the Rev. R. Cotton, who wrote:
Your skill all depends upon distance and sight,
Stand firm to your scratch, let your bat be upright.
The first athletes said to “start from scratch” were two runners in a handicap race in Sheffield, England, who were so described in a December, 1853, issue of The Era, a sports newspaper.
Golfing took up the word scratch, to apply it to a golfer who has a zero handicap. (A handicap is a number to be deducted from the actual number of strokes a golfer makes, to derive his final score. The handicap is calculated by one of several complicated systems that evaluate a player's skill relative to other players.)
By extension the phrase starting from scratch came to mean beginning any task under the assumption that no previous measures had been taken aimed at completing the task.
Nowadays you also hear it used for culinary terms, like “scratch biscuits,” that is those made without using a prepared mix.
Oh, about those Republicans trying to fix the health care system by starting from scratch, the Bard of Buffalo Bayou, crank that he is, has this to say:
O, send me somewhere,
Where the doctors don’t charge any fee,
Where seldom is heard
A Republican word,
And the drugs on prescription are free.
Please, send me somewhere
With real news on the air,
And not weird Breitbartian views,
Where Walter Cronkite
Can be heard every night,
And there’s not a peep from Fox News.
Yes, send me somewhere,
With no orange billionaire
Surrounded by sycophant hacks,
Where Bannon and Flynn,
Conway and her kin
Are all just alternative facts.