We all know about SCRAMBLED eggs. We also know about SCRAMBLED messages and signals, which are mixed up, garbled, and made unintelligible and have to be unscrambled back into their original order to be understood. So how did we go from the ‘scrambled’ in scrambled eggs and messages to F-16’s ‘scrambling’ or ‘being scrambled.’ The path is not all that clear and many dictionaries list the origins as ‘uncertain,’ but I think there are some things that can be said to piece together some sort of semi-coherence story.<2005 “Alert levels at the White House and Capitol were raised to their highest state when the Cessna 152 crossed into restricted air space and failed to respond to a Homeland Security helicopter SCRAMBLED to stop it.”—MSNBC, 12 May>
<2005 “A Department of Homeland Security Black Hawk helicopter and a small jet were sent from Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport to intercept the plane about 11:45 a.m. Shortly after, two F-16's were SCRAMBLED from Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland”—New York Times, 12 May>
The dictionary defines SCRAMBLE as a transitive and intransitive verb as well as a noun, and since I was uncertain as to its various definitions I assume others might also be, and so I provide them here:
1) intransitive verb a) To move or climb hurriedly, often over rough terrain, especially on the hands and knees. <“They scrambled up the hillside”> b) To struggle or contend frantically for possession or gain. <“They scrambled to get the best seats.”> c) To move hastily or with urgency. <“She scrambled into her coat and ran out the door.”> d) Military: Take off with all possible haste especially as to intercept enemy aircraft. e) in American football a term referring to the quarterback’s frantic efforts to evade onrushing tacklers.
2) transitive verb a) To mix together in confusion; throw into disorder. <“He had hopelessly scrambled the names and faces of the people he had met that evening.”> b) To intentionally make a message unintelligible. <“The message was scrambled so that it couldn’t be intercepted.”> c) To gather together in a hurried or disorderly fashion. <“He scrambled up his belongings and fled.”> d) To spread or grow irregularly, sprawl, ramble, straggle. <“It had been a scrambling frontier town.”> e) Military: To cause or order fighter-interceptor aircraft to take off quickly in response to an alert. e) to scramble eggs.
3) noun a) A quick climb or progression over rough, irregular ground, sometimes on all fours. b) a struggle for possession or gain. c) any disorderly or hasty struggle or proceeding. d) a disorderly or jumbles mass <“A scramble of wires and electrical equipment was spread out before them.” e) Military: an emergency takeoff of interceptors performed in the shortest possible time or chiefly in Britain an engagement with enemy aircraft – a dogfight. . e) a cross-country motorcycle race over a closed course of rough terrain with steep hills and sharp curves.
The origin of the verb SCRAMBLE is uncertain, but some think that it is perhaps a blend of the obsolete ‘scamble,’ to struggle for, and dialectal ‘cramble,’ to crawl. Its earliest meanings (16th and 17th centuries) were 1) to get through difficult ground or obstructions or into a place or position with effort by the struggling use of hands and feet and 2) to struggle with others for mastery or with a crowd for a share of food, coin, etc.
Thus, STRUGGLING, HASTE, and CONFUSION, which may perhaps be related to scrambling over difficult terrain, are themes that seem to have attached themselves to the word in its early history:
Starting in the second half of the 17th century the expression was being used figuratively to describe situations that involved the three abovementioned aspects (struggle, haste, and confusion) and in the 19th century it was being used as a related transitive verb meaning to collect or gather ‘up’ hastily or in disorder, to deal with hastily or ill-advisedly:<circa 1586 “The cowardly wretch fell down, crying for succour, & (SCRAMBLING through the legs of them that were about him) gat to the throne.”—‘The countesse of Pembrokes Arcadia’ by Sidney, page 221, Ibid. But Amphialus SCRAMBLED vp againe.” III. page 320>
<1614 “But if you will not assist me, I will attend the next hightide, & SCRAMBLE up into Pauls Church-yard.”—‘Water-Worke’ (dedication), J. Taylor (the Water Poet)
<1687 “We . . . then SCRAMBLED up a very high and steep hill.” “Thevenot's (J. de) Travels into the Levant” translated by A. Lovell, II. page 67>
The OED tells us that in 1864 good old SCRAMBLED EGGS appeared in print in Noah Webster’s An American Dictionary of the English Language (for an earlier quote that I found, see 1856 below) and again the underlying idea of the ‘confusion’ of the yolk with the white in mixing, may have been what led to this usage. And maybe it was then the idea of mixing and scrambling eggs that latter led directly to the modern use of SCRAMBLE, meaning to jumble or muddle, including the idea of scrambling a transmitted signal – both of which first appeared in print in 1927:<1670 “Girolamo Farnese . . . has made a shift, without any Foreign assistance, to SCRAMBLE into several Honours.”—‘History of the Cardinals of the Roman Church’ by G. H., II. III. page 180>
<1785 “Lisping our syllables, we SCRAMBLE next, Through moral narrative, or sacred text.”— ‘Tirocinium’ by Cowper, page 125>
<1822 “She had SCRAMBLED the boy's nine-pins into a bag.”—‘Osmond’ by M. A. Kelty, I. page 214>
<1833 “He hastily SCRAMBLED up the papers.”—‘Love & Pride’ by T. Hook, xi.>
<1859 “These poor wretches have been SCRAMBLING and scraping their passage-money together for months.”—‘Gaslight and Daylight’ by Sala, xxix. page 339>
<1863 “He is a fellow who will scramble through the world with a light heart.”— ‘Shakespeare-Characters’ by Cowden Clarke, xvi. page 411>
<1900 “I had not even SCRAMBLED into my clothes when the clock struck five.”—‘The Visits of Elizabeth’ (1906) by E. Glynn, page 93>
<1911 “Amendments hastily SCRAMBLED through committee in a House of Commons.”—‘Quarterly Review,’ July, page 218>
And finally (nearly), we have the WW II military SCRAMBLE (originally Royal Air Force), referring to pilots rushing to there planes to take off as quickly as possible to intercept approaching enemy bombers. And this ‘scramble’ seems to hark back to the original concept of struggling with haste to get over any and all obstructions in order to make it into their planes and into the air. However, etymologist Stuart Flexner implies in his books that the idea of rushing pilots taking off “in no specific order” played a hand in their choice of this word. I don’t know if I buy that one, and he is the only source that mentions that.<1856 “. . . at other times the evacuation resembled SCRAMBLED EGGS”—‘Homeopathic Domestic Physician’ by J. Pulte page 355>
<1927 “When you are in the native quarter [of Algiers] you can well imagine you are in the Old Testament which has been SCRAMBLED, stood on edge and saturated with all the disagreeable odors in the world.”—‘Letters’ by G. Ade et al (1973), 4 March, page 118>
<1927 “A Hammond multiplex system may be used with seven intermediate carrier waves which are SCRAMBLED and sent out by a single transmitter and then unscrambled at the receiving station so that each controls one of the seven light beams.”—‘General Electrical Review,’ XXX. page 84/2>
<1950 “The characters have been ‘scrambled’ so that none shall be recognizable.”—‘Times Literary Supplement, 27 January, page 55/4>
<1962 “The different arts are being run together and the borders of art and nature are being scrambled.”—‘The Listener,’ 5 April, page 603/1>
<1977 “Their [[the Jews aboard the Hamburg-Amerika liner, the St. Louis in 1939]] landing permitshad been deliberately scrambled by the Cuban government in league with the Nazis, who wanted the ship to sail from port to port searching for asylum.”—‘Time Magazine,’ 10 January, page 43/1>
And finally (finally), in the 1960s U.S. football adopted SCRAMBLE as a general expression meaning to act quickly, hustle, and then in 1976 gave it another more specific meaning (see quote below). The football definition was probably borrowed from the fighter pilots need for speed under pressure referring to the quarterback’s frantic efforts to evade onrushing tacklers:<1940 “The squadron SCRAMBLED and intercepted some Do215s and Me110s.”—in ‘Fighter Pilot’ (1976), ‘Diary’ by G. Barclay,’ 2 September, page 44>
<1941 “The signal to SCRAMBLE came at about eleven o'clock . . . We rushed to our aircraft and in less than two minutes were off the ground.”—‘Spitfires Over Malta’ by Brennan & Hesseelyn, page 15>
<1944 Hardly were they past the carrier than two Corsairs ‘scrambled’ off the deck to ‘intercept an enemy plane.’”—‘Daily Telegraph, 15 May 5/3>
(Oxford English Dictionary, Barnhart Concise Dictionary of Etymology, Random House and Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged Dictionaries, Listening to America and Speaking Freely by Flexner)<1964 “Campbell had to SCRAMBLE to get off passes to Jimmy Martin, Scotty Long or Ronnie Baynes.”—‘Birmingham News’ (Alabama), 26 October, page 20/1>
<1968 “It was Tarkenton who engineered this monumental upheaval, mainly because he bewildered the Packers with his SCRAMBLING.”—N.Y. Times, 13 August, page 31>
<1976 “‘SCRAMBLE, . . . of a football quarterback, to run around behind the line of scrimmage dodging would-be tacklers after initial pass protection has broken down before passing or running.”—“Webster’s Sports Dictionary,” page 373/2>
Ken G – May 13, 2005