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To ruin something by irreversibly putting an end to it.

“This downpour rather scuppers our plans for a picnic this afternoon.”

The scuppers of a ship are openings or gutters through which water drains off the deck. How this is related to the modern (mid-20th century) meaning of “scupper” is not entirely clear, though one suggestion is that a sailor killed in action would naturally roll into the scuppers, hence be “scuppered.”

In my view a more likely derivation is from the not infrequent confusion of “scupper” with “scuttle.” Scuttles are also holes in ships (for various purposes), but to “scuttle” a ship is to deliberately sink it (by boring a hole).

Whether or not this derivation is correct, it at any rate captures the faint sense of deliberate sabotage or even gleefulness in the word.

“Lords scupper terrorism bill,” read headlines when the House of Lords voted against some draconian new government powers in a new piece of anti-terrorism legislation. On the surface, the headline merely says that the upper house has killed the bill, but the writer gives at least the faint suggestion that their lordships took a modicum of quiet pleasure in reversing the government’s will.

The speaker of the sentence about rain scuppering a picnic even hints that perhaps the rain has deliberately chosen this afternoon to fall: if one cannot have a picnic, at least one can enjoy a minor feeling of martyrdom instead.

Mark Wainwright is a PhD student in the linguistic department at Cambridge University in England.


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