scat

The word “scat” has several meanings: an interjection used to drive away a cat, to go away quickly, animal fecal droppings, jazz singing with nonsense syllables. The word has been with us since at least 1838.

Apparently, “begone” or “scram” were the only meanings of the word until sometime after WW II. It’s still used to tell a cat to go away — skit scat, kitty cat! And, I’m sure, for other small animals and children as well.

“Scat,” also means a piece of excrement left by an animal out where some zoologist can find it. It is a back-formation derived from the word “scatology,” which has two meanings: first, an interest in or treatment of obscene matters especially in literature; second, the biologically oriented study of excrement (for taxonomic purposes or for the determination of diet). 

If the scat is fossilized we can call it a coprolite. One geology professor, speaking of a field trip he was on, found a coprolite in a cave. He explained it thus: “Obviously a creature crept into the crypt, crapped, and crept out again.”

“Scat,” as in singing, is much more suitable to drawing room conversation. In vocal jazz, scat singing is improvisation with wordless vocables, nonsense syllables or without words at all. The singer improvises melodies and rhythms using the voice as an instrument rather than a speaking medium. Ella Fitzgerald is generally considered one of the greatest scat singers in jazz history.

The deliberate choice of scat syllables is a key element in vocal jazz improvisation and differentiates jazz singers’ personal styles. Betty Carter was inclined to use sounds like “louie-ooie-la-la-la” (soft-tongued sounds or liquids) while Sarah Vaughan would prefer “shoo-doo-shoo-bee-ooo-bee” (fricatives, plosives, and open vowels). Fitzgerald’s improvisation mimics the sounds of swing-era big bands with which she performed, while Vaughan’s mimics that of her accompanying bop-era small combos.

Scat singing resembles the Irish and Scottish practice of lilting or diddling, a type of vocal music that involves using nonsensical syllables to sing non-vocal dance tunes. Scat also has an element of humor, depending on what tickles your funny-bone.

And, finally, a piece of trivia: Scat Daddy (May 11, 2004 – December 14, 2015) was an American Thoroughbred racehorse who won four stakes races. Retired after being injured in the Kentucky Derby, he went on to become a prominent sire.

I’ll bet he left lots of scat.

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