Date: Tue, 13 Jan 1998 14:35:09 +0000 From: Jim Rader Subject: Re: skell The locus classicus for 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 word. 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 and , 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 lunatics...." 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 him...." 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 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 (Knight-Ridder) 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 cops. 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 marked.] I've chosen the above because they're either revelatory or early or both, and I've left out media references to based on the David Milch/Steve Bochko TV shows or . 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 etymology seems very unlikely in view of the time gap, with or without the 1935 cite; however, is used in South African English, ultimately an independent borrowing from Dutch through Afrikaans--independent, that is, from Early Mod. English --though it means "rascal." Jim Rader