Ever wonder where the name Scrimshaw comes from? My father always told me that it came from an old German word that meant "to waste time" and it was applied to the carving on whale teeth and bone done by sailors in their spare time. Given how much time I wasted reading, I always figured it was appropriate!

Scrimshaw is one of the few art forms to have originated in America. It is the etching of a picture (almost always with a nautical theme) onto whale bone or ivory (or shells, wood, or any other material available to a 19th century sailor) and filling in the etching with ink to bring out the image. If you think of scrimshaw, you probably think of carving on a whale tooth. However, sailors often made useful items and decorated them with scrimshaw (think pie-crimpers, needlecases, cane handles). The earliest authenticated piece of scrimshaw dates from 1817.

Scrimshaw, the surname, is English, attested from 1154. It comes from the Old French 'escremisseor', meaning 'fencing master.' Variations include Scrimshawe, Scrymshaw, Scrimshour, Scrymshour, Scrimshire, Scrymshire, Scrimsher, Scrymsher, Scrimsger, Scrimger, and the Scottish variants Scrymgeor, Scrymgeour, and more. Scrymgeour-Wedderburn is the family name of the earls of Dundee.


origin of the scrimshaw name