Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Episode 126: Keeping Score Show Notes

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Bunny Trails: A Word History Podcast

Episode 126: Keeping Score

Record Date: September 19, 2021

Air Date: September 29, 2021



Welcome to Bunny Trails, a whimsical adventure of idioms and other turns of phrase. 

I’m Dan Pugh


And I’m Shauna Harrison

Every week, we take an idiom, or other turn of phrase, and try to tell the story from its entry into the English language, to how it’s used today.

This week, I’d like to cover a phrase that came up during our special episode with Grace Tierney where we interviewed her about her new book - Words the Vikings Gave Us. Grace mentioned several words that I was surprised had such little change from so many centuries ago to today. In this case, it is the word score - and the phrase? Keeping score. 


Let’s start with a few definitions. 

Definition of "keep score" - Merriam-Webster

: to officially record the number of points, goals, runs, etc., that each player or team gets in a game or contest —sometimes used figuratively If you're keeping score, this is the third time that he has run for mayor and lost.

And here is another from a resource that is entirely socially-sourced and therefore provides an unverified, but oftentimes very, very current glimpse at the use of words - Urban Dictionary:  

keeping score. a little malicious tit-for-tat game couples use to remind their partner what they contribute towards the relationship.

But how did we get here? 

With some info from Grace, the long-lasting tradition of sports, and how prevalent the phrase keeping score is today, it isn’t surprising that there is a lot to go through. So, we are going to hit some highlights in this episode.

How did we get this phrase in English in the first place. 

Let’s begin with the words themselves. The word that matters here is score, so let’s briefly talk about keep. 

Beginning around 1000 CE, keep has been in the English language with a variety of meanings including to take, hold, possess, take note, seize, watch, snatch, and so on.

Looking back ages ago, to the groups of people commonly referred to as Vikings… it turns out they were pretty organized people with rich culture and as much trading as other groups of peoples at the time. They did a lot of building as well… you know, all those boats and whatnot. It makes sense that they would develop a means for keeping track of things. 

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word score is a borrowing from early Scandinavian. The Old Norse word skor carried the definition: notch, tally, the number of twenty. 

[Old Norse skor strong feminine, notch, tally, the number of twenty (compare skora weak feminine, notch)]

Oxford English Dictionary’s primary definition for score is: 

A cut, notch, mark.

We find it with the sense: A crack, crevice (obsolete); a cut, notch, or scratch; a line drawn with a sharp instrument.

This was c1400 in the work Roman Rose quote:

“Than shal thou go the dore bifore, If thou maist fynde any score, Or hole, or reft, what ever it were.”

-End quote

The first phrase we see is attested even early, in the 1300’s 

out of score, beyond the mark, excessively, unreasonably (frequent in R. Brunne); †over score, over the mark, aside.

1303 Robert Mannyng, Handlyng Synne

“Þe aumenere was wroth þerfore, Þat he asked so oute of skore.”

Aumenere relates to alms, possibly alms-giving, alms house, or alms bag 

Oxford English Dictionary states that the phrase “out of score” was seen in print far before the literal use of the word score when with the sense used in the phrase. They give the definition for this sense of score as quote:  

A line drawn; a stroke, mark; a line drawn as a boundary. 

-End quote

?1553  (▸c1501) Gavin Douglas · The shorter poems (Palice of Honour in Shorter Poems)

Prosperite in erd is bot a dreme Or lyk as man wer steppand ouir a score [1579 Edinb. scoir].

The conclusion being that the literal use of score to denote a boundary must have been in use far before it was recorded in print, as it was possible to be “out of score” in the early 1300’s.

What we’ve covered so far falls under the concept of a physical mark or indicator when using the word score. The idea that led to our phrase keeping score, shows up in print around the same time. 

The second definition provided by the Oxford English Dictionary for score is: 

Notch cut for record, tally, reckoning. 

A record or account (of items of uniform amount to be charged or credited) kept by means of tallies, or (in later use) by means of marks made on a board (with chalk), on a slate, or the like. Now chiefly, the row of chalk marks on a door, or of strokes on a slate, which in rural alehouses used to serve to record the quantity of liquor consumed on credit by a regular frequenter. Hence occasionally transferred, a customer's account for goods obtained on credit.

a1400 in English gilds

“Ȝif þæt þe axkere bryngeþ skore oþer wryt, and aske þe berynge y-hole-cheche... Whos paye y-maked by skore oþer by scryt oþer by sywete, so þt he bere tayle oþer scryt, to preue hit vp-on hure nature.

If that the asker bring score other writ and ask the bering in hold check… whose pay I marked by score or by script or by other, so that he bere tally other script to prove it upon its nature. 

What about inventory or finances? 

Score in the sense:

A notch cut in a stick or tally, used to mark numbers in keeping accounts; also the tally itself.

the word is found in print as far back as c1460 in Sir Launfal by Thomas Chestre

In searching for this one, I found a really neat reference with San Francisco State University. On their website, they provide notes and translations for this work. Here is the quote as well as a related note and story portion. Quote: 

“All that Launfal hadde borwyd before, / Gyfré, be tayle and be score, / Yald hyt well and fyne” 

Note: The debts were repaid by collecting the tally sticks that recorded the transaction.

Launfal dressed himself elegantly in purple cloth trimmed with white ermine and directed Gyfré to repay all his debts.3  He held feasts for poor folk who were in distress, gave rich clothing to knights and squires, contributed to religious orders, freed prisoners, dressed minstrels, and shared his wealth far and near. 

Beyond monetary debts, there are other ways we tally or note credit. This includes: 

Games. Oxford English Dictionary tells us in this sense, score means: 

A mark made for the purpose of recording a point or the like. (cross-reference chalk)

1680 Charles Cotton The Complete Gamester (ed. 2) 102   

Lanterloo... Having dealt set up five scores or chalks; and then proceed forwards in your Game.

What about the words keep and score together? 

We see this as early as 

1646 in Richard Crashaw’s Steps to the temple: Sacred poems, with other delights of the muses

“The life thou took’st from him unto his Death.

Vain man! The stones that on his Tombe doe lye, 

Keepe but the score of them that made him dye.”

Keep was likely used prior to this. 

Edgefield advertiser - September 11, 1844 out of Edgefield, South Carolina

Clarksville chronicle., April 24, 1868 - Tennessee

The semi-weekly Republican., April 02, 1872, Image 1

About The semi-weekly Republican. (St. Francisville, La.

Baseball - can’t read 

Los Angeles Times of 15 March 1951

You don’t know about brownie points? All my buddies keep score. In fact every married male should know about ‘em. It’s a way of figuring where you stand with the little woman—favor or disfavor. Started way back in the days of the leprechauns, I suppose, long before there were any doghouses.

Before we move on to our modern uses, we’d like to take a quick moment to say thank you to our sponsors. 

A Quick Thank You


This episode is sponsored by our amazing Patrons. 

Bunny Trails is and will always be free. But we are only able to make this content because of the awesome support of our Patrons like Pat Rowe and Mary Halsig-Lopez. 

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Modern Uses


A written or printed piece of concerted music, in which all the vocal and instrumental parts are noted on a series of staves one under the other. Commonly stated to be so called from the practice (not now always followed) of connecting the related staves by ‘scores’ or lines continuing the bars.

1701 The London gazette The Score of Musick for the Fairy Queen.

  • In 1983 the book Keeping Score By George D. Durrant and Matthew B. Durrant was published.

The name L D R U is an initialism of “left-down-right-up”. Paige IV is a mysterious Melbourne singer who kind of showed up with L D R U. She is now known as Sarah Paige Aarons.

Try my best to pretend that I'm not home

Because I think you're better to forget

And then I hear the rocks against my window

And I know you're a mistake I won't regret

Part of the chorus and bridge include: 

I know what I'm in for

And nothing more

We're all placing bets

But I'm not keeping score

I'm not keeping score


No I'm not keeping score

No I'm not keeping score

No I'm not keeping score




  • Also in 2016, the article Do You Keep Score in Your Relationships? How we fall behind on relationship maintenance. By Susan Krauss Whitbourne Ph.D. was published on Psychology Today under the series Fulfillment at Any Age  

  • 2018 We have the song  Keeping Score by Dan + Shay featuring Kelly Clarkson

I love Dan and Shay - or at least that one song.


Someday we're gonna look back

On a night like tonight

The car I pulled up in

The necklace you're wearing

Won't even cross our minds

Someday we're gonna blink twice

Say it happens like that

How much money we saved up

For the time that we gave up

Well, it'll all just be math

I know I'm only human

Don't know how many sunsets I got left

And I don't wanna ruin

This moment by wondering what comes next

I just want to love you

Like it's all I'm living for

Hold you close, enjoy you more

And spend a little less time keeping score

  • How Do You Keep Score? By Robert Bird was Published on September 17, 2021 on LinkedIn Pulse

Back to rugby; very occasionally we would meet a side which matched our lack-of-skill. This actually made for a good, disorganized, close game but generally, most times we were trounced. However, keeping score was still important to us, however embarrassing those scores were. Keeping score measured our progress and demonstrated development or rather, the lack of it.

So, how do you keep score? What measurement do you use to show you are winning (if ‘winning’ is your thing)? How do you determine if you are or you’re becoming a success?

Is it salary? Job title? Square footage of the house or the number of bedrooms? Cars? Social media ‘likes’ ? The list goes on. I’ve pretty much (mistakenly, in my view) used all of the above as a benchmark at some stage or other and while these things don’t carry the same importance for me now, I certainly wouldn’t judge anyone else who used them as their own yardstick.

Wrap up…

Anything that starts with Vikings is awesome in my book! I was overwhelmed by how long we’ve used this figuratively and the various ways in which we use it. There is just so much! But it makes sense. Humans like growth and progress, where it is personal, societal, or agricultural. We mark the days, we mark changes and improvements and losses. We like to measure things. See, Dan, humans like math whether they realize it or not! But my favorite idea out of all this is from the Dan + Shay song… there are times in our lives and certain things in life of which, perhaps, we should just stop trying to keep score. 



That’s about all the time we have for today. If you have a pop culture reference we should have mentioned, we’d love to hear about it! Reach out to us on social media where we are @bunnytrailspod, or comment on our website - Of course, the best way to make sure we see your comment is to post it on the Patreon page! 


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Thanks for joining us. We’ll talk to you again next week. And until then remember... 


Words belong to their users.


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