Up to Scratch – Idiom, Origin and Meaning

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Danielle McLeod

Danielle McLeod is a highly qualified secondary English Language Arts Instructor who brings a diverse educational background to her classroom. With degrees in science, English, and literacy, she has worked to create cross-curricular materials to bridge learning gaps and help students focus on effective writing and speech techniques. Currently working as a dual credit technical writing instructor at a Career and Technical Education Center, her curriculum development surrounds student focus on effective communication for future career choices.

Idioms are words and phrases that offer a figurative use different from their literal meaning. They are fun and interesting ways to insert detail and analogy into your speech and writing. However, you may confuse your audience if they are unfamiliar with the idiom, its origins or the reference you are attempting to make with it.

Up to scratch is a great example of this. Scratch means a mark or wound, but it takes on a very different meaning when used in the idiomatic phrase up to scratch. This could create confusion and frustration for anyone new to the English language.

Let’s learn how to use the phrase up to scratch so you can recognize its inference and use it in your own materials.

What Does Up to Scratch Mean?

Up to Scratch Idiom Origin Meaning

When something is described as up to scratch, it means that it is up to a required standard, is as good as what was required, demanded, or expected, or that someone or something is satisfactory. It also highlights that a person or animal is fit or healthy and exhibits having met certain requirements.

Up to Scratch Examples in a Sentence

  • The culinary instructor determined the preparation work was up to scratch and gave the student the go-ahead to begin baking.
  • Jonathan questioned whether the resources the data was gathered from were up to scratch, requiring the laboratory to produce the certificates of the maintenance recently completed as an assurance of their consistency.
  • Despite her concerns, Monica’s investigatory efforts were considered up to scratch by the department, and she was promoted to detective.
Up to Scratch Idiom Origin Meaning 1

Obviously, when something is not up to scratch, it is inferred that certain expectations, demands or requirements have not been met or that something is unsatisfactory. When used in the negative, it usually suggests that progress is not being made or that things are currently at a standstill.

For example:

  • She was concerned her athletic efforts weren’t up to scratch, seeing as the scholarship committee comprised former Olympic athletes.
  • Despite her best efforts to convince the students they had control over their success, their poor attendance contributed to the Dean’s decision to hold them back due to “not being up to scratch for such a prestigious school.”
  • Unfortunately, her cookie dough was not up to scratch compared to the other competitors, and she failed to make it to the next round of the baking challenge.

Origins of the Term Up to Scratch

The term up to scratch appeared during the early to mid-1800s as a reference to boxing rules. When boxing was bare-knuckled, the opponent had to stand with their toes against a scratch in the ground at the start of every round. If a fighter was fit enough to stand at his assigned place at the beginning of a round (meaning he could walk himself to the line), he was up to scratch. If not, he was not up to scratch—likely due to his injuries.

Up to Scratch Ngram
Up to scratch usage trend.

The term was probably used before this pertaining to foot and horse races that would start at a line scratched into the ground, but it is difficult to find documentation of its use in such a manner. However, the Oxford English Dictionary lists scratch as “a line or mark drawn to indicate a boundary or starting point.”

The term not up to the mark can be used as a replacement for not up to scratch. In a modern sense, this negative connotation refers to something not meeting a certain standard. To start from scratch means to start over, to come up to scratch means to work towards certain expectations, to bring to the scratch means to be prepared or ready, and to toe the scratch means to have met requirements.

All of these variations are easily understood if you define scratch as a starting line.

Let’s Review

The athletic connotation of the word scratch, when used as a starting point, has its roots in the 19th century and possibly earlier. To be up to scratch meant that a boxer (or other athletic event participants) was up to the physical ability required to begin a match.

Today, the idiom indicates something that is up to expectations or requirements.