Provocations #17 – What’s in a Name? A Pair of Scissors

Image from the Wikimedia Creative Commons 2.5 Generic license.

While I usually occupy myself with heavy topics in this blog, or so they seem so to me, I have a light question to pose instead: Why do we refer to scissors, which is to say the things we cut with, “a pair of scissors?”

A wise friend said it is because there are two blades.  There is a logic to that I admit, and it is the correct answer (read on). 

I must say however, that I don’t like this explanation.  Scissors entered the English lexicon in the 15th century. Merriam Webster defines scissors (noun) as “a cutting instrument having two blades whose cutting edges slide past each other.”    In a sense, the name “scissors” is defined by its action; it can only operate as intended if there are two blades.  You can no more cut with a scissor-like motion with one blade, than you can clap with one hand.   

Delightfully, Meriam Webster has a web page, “What’s the Singular of ‘Scissors’?”, devoted to this question. It turns out that scissors “is an example of a plurale tantum,” which is a word that uses a plural form to represent a singular object.  In explaining the origins of the phrase a pair of scissors, the article asks rhetorically, how does one distinguish between one scissors and a whole pile of them?  It turns out that the precedent was set a century before by reference to a pair of shears, and this is now the standard for all plurale tantum (glasses, pants, etc.). Thus my friends explanation is correct according to an authoritative source.

I’m glad I asked, but the contrarian in me likes standing on the wrong side of history, and I’ll continue to take exception to referring to a “pair of scissors” (even if I slip up occasionally and use this long engrained expression).

It seems self evident at this point, but interestingly, the use of the noun scissors predates the use of the verb scissor; as in ‘she scissor kicked the ball in mid air’.

Copyright ©️ 2020 T. Schneider All Rights Reserved


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