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

bartender's jargon]:

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."

Jim Rader