Among the “100 things we didn’t know last year” was the fact that the peculiarly English word “scrumpy” originally meant small and shrivelled. It is also a dialect word for a small apple.
A cursory review of Google sources says that scrumpy applied to a shrivelled apple or other fruit via scrimp, an 18th century Scots adjective meaning “meagre” or “scanty”. It seems to have been used metaphorically to refer to anything with wrinkles and it may originate in the German schrumpfen “to shrink” or “to become wrinkled”.
In England, specifically in the West Country, scrumpy refers to cider made by traditional methods and allowed to ferment naturally. According to one expert, “A really dry cider sets your tongue on fire. It’s a different experience than beer. And with bottled single-variety apple ciders, you get lovely, lovely flavour.”
There is also a verb “to scrump”, meaning to steal apples from someone else’s trees or orchard. In Book 2 of his Confessions, written in AD 387, St Augustine castigated himself as one of the earliest scrumpers on record:
“A pear tree there was near our vineyard, laden with fruit, tempting neither for colour nor taste. To shake and rob this, some lewd young fellows of us went, late one night (having according to our pestilent custom prolonged our sports in the streets till then), and took huge loads, not for our eating, but to fling to the very hogs, having only tasted them.”
In the Sussex town of Midhurst, where I went to boarding-school, we, too, scrumped. There were apple trees in the headmaster’s kitchen garden, zealously guarded by the caretaker we had cruelly named “Ah-Sweep” because of his habit of wheezing before sweeping. It was, of course, forbidden to be outside after hours, but climbing out of a window and shinnying down a drainpipe were skills easily acquired.
One summer’s night, several boys were lodged in different trees when Ah-Sweep passed underneath and heard what must have seemed like celestial whispering. It was pitch dark and, while he went to fetch a torch, we seized the moment to escape, jumping down and racing away.
But unlike St Augustine, and safe in our domitory, we devoured the apples, sharing our plunder with friends. Forbidden fruit, maybe, but it never tasted so good!