I couldn't find this particular idiom "to pick at the scab" in any of the famous dictionaries online like Cambridge or Macmillan. I could only find it on Urban Dictionary

That makes me wonder if it's a correct idiom or not?

New contributor
pensee is a new contributor to this site. Take care in asking for clarification, commenting, and answering. Check out our Code of Conduct.
  • It's not incredibly common, but it would be understood. Used more in colloquial situations, given the 'eewvvv' nature of the concept. – mcalex Jul 22 at 20:54
  • "To rub salt in the wound" would be a more common way to expresss this – personjerry Jul 23 at 7:13

Cambridge doesn't consider it as a set phrase, but it gives an example of it used in the literal sense under the entry of scab as noun:

a hard covering of dry blood that forms over a cut or sore:

  • Don’t pick at your scab!

Urban simply states that it can be used figuratively, too. The phrase seems to be used more recently. Here is an example found in A Widow's Words: Letters to My Beloved, By Cathy Penman:

Similarly with a bereavement – don't 'pick at the scab' of the emotional wound, leave it alone to heal with time.


Verbs and nouns that collocate, like "have a shower" or "offer an apology", aren't considered idioms, so they don't get mentioned in dictionaries. The verb "pick" collocates with the noun "scab", so it's natural to use them together, but a dictionary wouldn't list the collocation.

To "pick a scab" means to pull a scab off. To "pick at a scab" means to play with a scab over time, maybe pulling bits off, perhaps without focusing on it much, the way people twirl their hair or doodle.

Your Answer

pensee is a new contributor. Be nice, and check out our Code of Conduct.

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.