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Q From a US subscriber: Your comments on the British slang term skive makes me wonder about the origin of the term skivvies for men's underwear. All the dictionaries I've consulted say the origin is unknown. Any ideas?

A Unfortunately, “origin unknown” is a pretty fair summary.

Your dictionaries probably give outdated information about it. Most suggest it’s a term from the early 1930s, based on the earliest example given in the OED’s entry. But researchers have taken that date back progressively, and I can unveil my own contribution, which appeared in December 1918 in the Evening State Journal of Lincoln, Nebraska, as part of a humorous piece under the headline “Boys Will Be Boys — Even in the Marine Corps”: “‘Well, boys, I believe I’ll play a little golf today and not go to the office at all. I’m all run down and need a little hard physical labor,’ declares an athlete in the act of putting on his ‘skivvies.’”

Some works say it derives from a trademark. That’s wrong, too. The word has been briefly trademarked several times, but the earliest in the US Trademarks Registry is dated 1954 (by Norwich Mills Inc, Norwich, New York) and by then the word had been in public use for some time.

In the singular, a skivvy is usually defined as a vest (as we would call it in Britain) or undershirt, sometimes specifically named as a skivvy shirt. In the plural it either refers to both vest and underpants or to male underwear in general. Most examples suggest that this last meaning came along after the one for a vest. But that 1918 citation is in the plural, which may indicate it was already a fairly broad term. The early examples all indicate it was US military slang.

One suggestion often touted is that it comes from skibby, a west-coast World War Two term for a Japanese. A lot of people quote this as fact, so it may be worth a digression to look into what is in any case an interesting word.

Damon Runyon described it in an article in 1942: “‘Skibby’ is what Japs are called to this day by most Californians even in polite circles, and it is unlikely that the California home-grown soldiers will dismiss it for the more polite ‘Charlie’ and ‘Tojo’ that the dispatches from the Far East would have us believe are now terms for the enemy. It is not at all uncommon to see ‘Skibby’ in the local public prints.” That was certainly true. But the term is much older — he wrote his comment because he had been criticised by servicemen who remembered it from the Philippines in the early 1900s. To them it meant a Japanese prostitute. That comes from Japanese sukebei, randy or lecherous, a word that Japanese prostitutes may have used as part of a greeting along the lines of “Hello, sailor, are you horny tonight?”. It was later generalised to mean any Japanese, though it remained derogatory and was deeply resented by those so described.

If skivvies did come from that Japanese word, the dating of my first citation and the context of early examples shows it must have entered the language through US military slang from the first meaning, “prostitute”. Though the association is obvious enough in one way, linguistically speaking it’s not clear how one gets from Japanese prostitutes to American male underwear.

I’m sceptical myself, but have no alternative to offer.

[Following the first publication of this piece, many subscribers mentioned another sense of skivvy, the British one of a lowly, overworked and ill-paid female servant — an old-fashioned term that pretty much went out of use when the job vanished, though the verb has lingered on. The experts have no clear idea where that comes from either, but the evidence suggests that it has a different origin, possibly an English dialect word. Many Australians pointed out that in that country skivvy has another sense still, that of a long-sleeved roll-neck lightweight T-shirt worn by both men and women. I can’t find an origin for this, but it’s comparatively recent and so the implication is that it derives from the American sense.]

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