Date: Tue, 13 Jan 1998 14:35:09 +0000
From: Jim Rader jrader[AT SYMBOL GOES HERE]M-W.COM
Subject: Re: skell
The locus classicus for skell seems to be a Paul Theroux article
that appeared in the New York Times magazine (Jan. 31, 1982). The
Theroux article is cited by the Barnhart Dictionary Companion and the
Third Barnhart Dictionary of New English, as well as by the OED
Additions Series volume referred to by Jesse Sheidlower. It seems
that what Theroux picked up, though, was just one application of the
Nexis gave some interesting results, limited, not unexpectedly, by
the unavailabililty of full text before ca. 1980. I'll give below
some excerpts (in chronological order) from what I found without much
comment. I searched under the spellings skell and skel , both of
which have been used.
New York Times, May 3, 1981 - W. Safire "On Language" [article on
Although "stiff" is still used to mean a state of drunkenness (from
the resemblance to a corpse rigid with rigor mortis), the word is
more frequently used to describe one who refused to tip. Such
deadbeats are also shafties, diviners, short strokes, skels (from
"skeleton") and A.O.H. (a corruption of "out of here").
New York Times, Jan. 2, 1983 - W. Safire's "On Language":
Street person sounds bookish; another, more colorful term was
used in a caption in this magazine last year, under a picture of a
man sleeping in a subway: "While some New Yorkers seldom use the
subway, others live there. The police call such people 'skells' and
are seldom harsh with them." [Safire is almost certainly referring
to the Theroux piece, but I haven't actually checked the microfilm
version of the article to confirm that there is such a picture.]
Skell is a beaut of a bit of slang. It is a shortening of
skellum, meaning rascal or thief, and akin to skelder, "to beg on the
streets," first used in print by Ben Jonson in 1599, just after the
playwright got out of jail after killing a man in a duel; it is
possible he picked up the word from a cellmate's argot.
"It shows the sheer persistence of words," says Stuart Berg
Flexner, editor in chief of Random House dictionaries, when shown
this citation. "Here an Elizabethan argot word with some old
literary use pops again in a shortened form in the mid-20th century
(about 1935 in the short form skell), showing that skellum had some
underground oral use for centuries. It's a long way from the
Elizabethan underground to the New York Times, but skellum/skell
finally made it!" [I have no idea what ca. 1935 usage Flexner was
referring to, though knowing personally something about Flexner's
working methods, my guess is that this is totally groundless--I hope
someone can prove the contrary.]
Newsday, Feb. 22, 1988 (byline--Denis Hamill)
When I see malevolent, nothing-to-lose guys like this, all screaming
at each other, the delirious crazy people whom cops call "skells,"
the down-and-outs, the grungy and hopeless, garbage-heads who use any
foreign substance known to man to alter reality.
Newsday, March 4, 1988 [unnamed NYC police officer is being quoted]:
"...The guys we talk to and grill are the guys we know are dirty. We
don't bust hump on John Q. Citizen. Skanks and skells, that's who
did this. No one could be the top of any organization that ordered a
hit on a uniformed cop. You don't become the head of anything by
doing something as dumb as this. So it has to be trash, crashed-out
Newsday, Sept. 26, 1988
"These projects are like our homes," [NYC narcotics officer Mike]
Codella said. "We know people here. Everybody. We care about them.
The great majority are good people. It's the skells [junkies, pimps
and thieves] [preceding gloss is in the original--JLR] who ruin their
lives and it's our job to put them into the joint."
Newsday, June 12, 1989 [from a digest of a book by Stephen MacDonald,
an NYC police officer]:
I always expected that that'd be where I got shot, even killed, by
one of the skells, the lowlife riding those cars.
Newsday, Aug. 14, 1989 [quote from unnamed NYC homicide detective]:
"A couple hours later, all thse guys, the most dangerous skels in
Queens, are sitting in a back booth in Carmichael's, a diner out on
New York boulevard, when Ice walks in, the hooker right behind
New York Times, May 12, 1990 [quote from 59-year-old NYC police
officer John Leitgeb]:
"But you got to go with the flow and change," he said. "I see the
skels lying on the street. You can't do what you used to do: whack
them on the behind with a night stick."
Newsday, July 4, 1990 [op-ed piece]:
...the now too recent past...when cops would refer to the dead black
man as a "skell," meaning an insignificant person....
Newsday, June 5, 1991
One of the more blatant forms of racism, the report [of NY State
Judicial Commission on Minorities] found, is the use by judges,
attorneys and courtroom personnel of racial jokes or epithets to
describe nonwhites. Names like "mope," "tar baby," "slime,"
"deadbeat," "rabbit" and "skell" (which translated means bum or
trash) are among the favorites.
Newsday, May 5, 1992
The idea, of course, is to increase the number of minority cops, the
thinking being that no one knows the enemy within better than a
brother who is wise to the ways of the skels.
New York Times, April 24, 1994:
"If you want to see the skels, ride the E," said one train conductor.
I asked what skels are. "The skels are like the really disgusting
homeless," he answered.
Newsday, Sept. 7, 1994:
But a plainclothes cop doing his or her job successfully tries to
blend in with the crowd, especially with the "mutts," "dirtbags," and
"skells" (cop slang for riffraff up to no good).
Hartford Courant, Nov. 30, 1994 [cite not very revelatory, but
evidence for skell in use by Manchester CT police officers]
Daily News (NY), Mar. 16, 1995:
Gary, meanwhile, complained about his brother to associates. One
lawyer who had known Gary for years recalled him calling Kenneth "a
skell who was always getting into trouble. He was going to wash his
hands of him."
Newsday, Nov. 8, 1995
In the old days, when New York cops referred to "the animals," they
meant the skells and low-life who populated the local precinct.
Times-Union (Albany NY), Aug. 23, 1996 - review by Steven Whitty
All of this seemed mildly amusing to me, although I have to admit I'm
predisposed to look kindly on a movie about Irish families,
particularly a movie that uses a good old-fashioned New York slur
like skell. (Trust me--if someone calls you that, hit them.)
Daily News (NY), Oct. 8, 1996
Livoti wanted to walk into the courthouse as a police officer instead
of a common criminal defendant, one of the "skells" so despised by
Union-Leader (Manchester NH), Nov. 15, 1996 [quoting Augie Babritsky,
"the sage of West Manchester"]:
"Got his idiot brother-in-law on one of them city commissions. The
skell carries around a badge, flashing it in bars...."
Daily News (NY), May 9, 1997
That's what brought Boyce to Sing Sing, March 16, 1995, for a sitdown
with Sidney Quick, serving six years to life for armed robberies
committed while on work release. Understand that Quick a skell among
skells [sic punctuation] looking for menthol cigarets, better phone
privileges and ultimately freedom tells a variety of different
stories, from preposterous to pragmatic....
Village Voice, Sept. 30, 1997 (byline--William Bastone)
Back when he was jailing--and not hailing--felons, Giuliani surely
would have been repulsed by a septuagenarian skell like Fugazy. But
it appears that the aging hustler's political-media-business
connections and his fundraising skills have won Giuliani's heart,
despite the lobbyist's tawdry resume. [Voice writers have been using
this word with increasing frequency the past couple of years; note
that Nexis has had Village Voice text only since Jan., 1994; Merriam
writers have been marking it since 1991--as a matter of fact, I have
a yellowing pile under my desk from around then waiting to be
I've chosen the above because they're either revelatory or early or
both, and I've left out media references to skell based on the
David Milch/Steve Bochko TV shows NYPD Blue or Brooklyn South .
But note that Nexis has only carried full text of Newsday since Jan.,
1988 and NY Daily News since March, 1995. Undoubtedly more and
earlier evidence would turn up if we had more to search through
electronically (or if there were dozens of Barry Popik's out there
expanding the lexicographical horizon). Whether the use is extending
beyond New York City, with or without influence of the TV shows,
remains to be seen; not the above cites from CT and NH.
If the unifying sense of the word is "person perceived by the speaker
to be of low social status," whether vagrant or petty criminal or
non-tipper, the "skeleton" etymology does not look very satisfactory,
though I conjectured this in the Random House College Dictionary back
in 1990 for lack of any other ideas. Flexner's skellum etymology
seems very unlikely in view of the time gap, with or without the 1935
cite; however, skelm is used in South African English, ultimately
an independent borrowing from Dutch schelm through
Afrikaans--independent, that is, from Early Mod. English
skellum --though it means "rascal."