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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?

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  • 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
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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.

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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.

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