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The meaning and origin of the expression: Scraping the barrel

Scraping the barrel

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What's the meaning of the phrase 'Scraping the barrel'?

Scraping the barrel is using or accepting something of inferior quality because all the better quality items have been used up. The phrase initially meant 'use every last part of the barrel's contents so as not to waste any'.

A modern day variant of 'scraping the barrel' is 'jumping the shark' - used when a long-running TV series is deemed to have put out a feeble episode, having run out of better ideas.

What's the origin of the phrase 'Scraping the barrel'?

Following a decline in usage in the late 20th century the expression 'scraping the barrel' has become popular again. This is no doubt because of the reviews of the numerous reality TV shows, which are ploughing thinner and thinner ground. Here in the UK no new show seems to get airtime unless it is 'The Great British...'. We were recently treated to The Great British Celebrity Bake-off Christmas Special - and if that's not scraping the bottom of the barrel I don't know what is. Perhaps Alan Partridge's spoof 'Monkey Tennis' idea might actually get made.

The meaning and origin of the expression 'Scraping the barrel'So, how about the origin of this phrase. The barrel being referred to is a storage barrel and the scraping is the removal of the last dregs of the contents. The first uses of the expression refer to scraping the barrel as a means of getting the every last small piece, so as not to waste any.

Which specific product was first said to be the one that initiated the 'scrape the barrel' phrase isn't known. To explain that we need to go back in time, to a date when barrels were commonly used for storage. As it turns out we don't need to go as far back as you might think. Put thoughts of casks of flour stored on medieval sailing ships out of your mind - the phrase originated in the USA in the mid 20th century.

Presumably, barrels have always been scraped to remove the last remnants of whatever they contained. The metaphorical usage, that is, one where no actual barrel was involved, began in the 1930s. There were many forms of the phrase, some referring to 'scraping the ... barrel', some to 'scraping the bottom of the ... barrel'.

The earliest example of the 'last dregs/poorest quality' meaning doesn't include the phrase itself but clearly alludes to it. That's in The California newspaper The Chico Enterprise, November 1930:

We all learn sooner or later in life that the barrels of this life all have bottoms that we soon scrape.

All the early uses of the expression relate to the eking out of the last dregs of an item that was in short supply. The might have been food, money etc.

The first use in print that I can find that refers to scraping the barrel as 'providing a poor product because of scarce resource' is from the Montana newspaper The Independent-Record, February 1932:

1932 receipts would be decreased by $1,500,000. Declaring "we are scraping the barrel" to continue construction on present projects.

Some people have suggested that 'scraping the barrel' refers to oil, which us stored in barrels. The notion is that the lighter forms of oil rise to the top and the cruder forms, tar, bitumen etc., sink to the bottom. The 'poor quality' meaning of the phrase could then be explained as referring to the poorer oil products that adhere to the bottom of the barrel. That's speculation and, while none of the early examples of use of the expression relate to petroleum, the 1930s date makes it at least plausible.

Gary Martin - the author of the website.

By Gary Martin

Gary Martin is a writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.

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