Date: Fri, 6 Feb 1998 11:03:27 +0000
From: Jim Rader jrader[AT SYMBOL GOES HERE]M-W.COM
Subject: More on "the skinny"

_Skinny_ in the sense "the inside dope" has appeared in several
issued of _American Speech_, including:

v. 34 (1959) "Gator (University of Florida) Slang" by Lalia Phipps
Boone: _What's the skinny_ means 'What's up?' (p. 153). [This
is the first cite in OED2.]

v. 40 (1965) "Notes on Campus Vocabulary, 1964" by Lawrence Poston,
III, and Francis J. Stillman: SKINNY, n. Attested in the ATS (904.2)
and the DAS, this word has in the past (especially in Naval Academy
slang) meant a course or class in physics and chemistry. It may also
be synonymous with _poop_: "What's the skinny on that French class?"
(p. 195) [Merriam cite files have an Oct. 22, 1937 letter to the New York
Times from a Naval Academy midshipman confirming the use of _skinny_
to refer to chemistry and physics.]

v. 55 (1980) " 'The Skinny Was Always...' " by Brian Dibble (p.
155-57). The author discusses the use of the word by R.V. Cassill in
a short story ("Happy Marriage") first published in 1956 in the
_Kansas Magazine_. The opening sentence of the story is "The
skinny was always: You married specifically against death." Dibble
asked Cassill where he had heard the word, to which he replied:
"...I first heard it persistently and widely used by nearly everyone
in the Army and Navy during WWII...I can't begin to guess when or how
it might have come into usage." Dibble also queried J.B. Hall, the
editor of a short fiction collection in which Cassill's story
appeared; Hall replied: "It is American slang, not now used very
much, I think....It is exactly equivalent to some old RAF-ese I used
to hear: to get the 'gen'; now we get--more universally--the 'dope'
on something, the 'word' or the 'info'." Note that OED2 did not pick
up the antedating.

_Skinny_ in the sense "inside information" was not entered in Merriam
dictionaries until the 6th Addenda section to W3 and C10 came out in
1993. Our post-C9 citation files have no examples of _the skinny_
(other than references to the _American Speech_ articles) before
1975. However, Fred Shapiro alerted me to the fact that _skinny_ as noun
in C10 is dated "1938," and sure enough, attached to the dating file
slip is a copy of a 1938 citation. I waded through the several
inches of cites for _skinny_ in our old (pre-C10) citation files and
could find not a single example of the relevant sense, with the
exception of the 1938 slip, the text of which follows:

-But the elfin corners of Lehua's mouth suggest her gift of
-improvisation. Had she really given me the skinny of an actual
-legend from the archives of her race, or was she wafting me the
-native poetry of her soul?

Richard Hallet, _The Rolling World_, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co.,
1938, p. 287.

_Skinny_ in this passage looks more like "the gist" than "the inside
information," but it's hard not to see it as the same word. The
writer, in mixing registers, may have given it his own twist.

I did a bit of investigation into the man who was using _the skinny_
in 1938. Richard Matthews Hallet, according to _Who Was Who in
America_, was born in Bath, Maine, in 1887 and died in 1967. After
taking A.B. and LL.B. degrees at Harvard, he shipped on a British
bark bound for Australia in 1912 and worked at a number of
jobs--stone breaker, sheepshearer, boundary rider (presumably in
Australia), fireman on a British mail packet to London, timber
cruiser in Canada, copper miner in Arizona, watch officer on a U.S.
Army transport carrying horses during World War I--before settling
down to writing as a career. Hallet later worked for Gannett and was
a war correspondent in the Pacific theater during World War II.
Books by him in NYPL research collection are _ The Lady Aft_ (Boston,
c1915), _Trial by Fire: A Tale of the Great Lakes (Boston, c1916),
_The Canyon of the Fools_ (New York, c1922), _Michael Beam_ (Boston,
c1939), _Foothold of Earth_ (New York, 1944), in addition to _The
Rolling World_; the latter is subject-coded as travel literature, and
so is presumably non-fiction. Hallet's books, given his varied
background, seem like they might have been a good source for cites;
he was quoted five times in W3, but I haven't checked to see if
other books of his were read by Merriam editors.

I have doubts about the hypothesis that _skinny_ in the sense "inside
dope" had anything to do with thin paper used for briefings;
whatever the origin, the sense could not have arisen during World
War II. If this usage was so common then, why is there so little
citational evidence for it? I look forward to seeing what Jon
Lighter's slang dictionary produces on the word.

Jim Rader