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Q From Lucy Banks: A recent game of online scrabble turned up the word squilgee, which I had never heard before. The online dictionary says that it is a variant of squeegee, but only lists vague perhapses for the origins of both words. Can you give a more definite response?

A I can give more information about it, though — as with so many words — the ultimate origin is somewhat obscure. Whether this may reasonably be described as a definite response, I’ll leave to you.

You need not chastise yourself for not knowing squilgee, because it has never been common and is now very rare. The Oxford English Dictionary has its first example from Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick of 1851, but he described it better in a work of the year before:

Finally, a grand flooding takes place, and the decks are remorselessly thrashed with dry swabs. After which an extraordinary implement — a sort of leathern hoe called a “squilgee” — is used to scrape and squeeze the last dribblings of water from the planks. Concerning this “squilgee,” I think something [sometimes?] of drawing up a memoir and reading it before the Academy of Arts and Sciences. It is a most curious affair.

White-Jacket, by Herman Melville, 1850. The book was about Melville’s travels on a US Navy ship.

All the early examples are from seafaring contexts, particularly the US Navy. Volume 7 of The Century Dictionary, published in the US in 1895, recorded the sense that Melville describes but added that a similar instrument, which from the description is in its essentials the modern squeegee, was used by photographers to clean the glass plates that were standard at the time.

The Century Dictionary also included the squeegee spelling and implied that by then it was more common — photographic magazines of the period certainly spelled it that way and it is by far the more usual form in the decades that follow. Squeegee wasn’t then new, however — it’s actually recorded a little earlier than squilgee, although in its early appearances it refers to the same shipboard cleaning tool that Melville describes. It seems to have swapped spelling as soon as it arrived on dry land.

Where the words come from is hard to say. The OED hypothesises that both of them are variations on the older squeege, to compress, which is almost certainly a strengthened form of squeeze. Thinking about it, that probably isn’t so much better than the “vague perhapses” of your online dictionary.

As I can’t give you the whole story of squilgee, you might like to hear by way of compensation about some information that turned up while I was looking for examples of it. This tantalising snippet was one:

Unless the Navy Department should choose to issue an official communique on the subject, the “squeegee” vs. “squilgee” controversy may now be considered closed, for we have received a letter from no less an authority than the great Elmer Squee himself.

New York Times, 12 Jul. 1942. Elmer Squee was created by Richard L Brooks, who produced a book of cartoons in 1942 featuring this timid Naval recruit. I’ve not been able so far to track down details of the controversy, though it seems to have been an argument in Navy circles about the correct name for the tool, some arguing it was really a squilgee, not a squeegee. Tradition dies hard. (I’ve been told that it was still being called that in the US Navy at least into the 1950s.)

Both words were known on the other side of the Atlantic at the time of Melville. The British admiral William Smyth listed both in his The Sailor's Word-Book of 1867. Squilgee is the same tool that Melville describes. But Smyth says that a squeegee is “A small swab of untwisted yarns. Figuratively, a lazy mean fellow”.

I have also learned that there was at one time a second sense also of squilgee, which I encountered in this poem:

Then come my guys, the boom to swing, —
Bend on the halliards, outhaul too,
Put on the squilgee, that will do.

Life in a Man-of-War, or Scenes in “Old Ironsides” During her Cruise in the Pacific, by a Fore-Top-Man (Henry James Mercier), 1841.

Seeking enlightenment, I turned to a manual of seamanship, written a couple of decades later by Captain Luce of the US Navy. You may wish to take careful note of the procedure which he describes so that you will not be caught unready (or even all at sea) the next time you need to set a lower studding-sail:

Overhaul down the outer and inner halliards, and bend them on, the former to the yard, and the latter to the inner head of the sail; overhaul in and bend on the outerhaul to the clew; pass a stop around the sail, and secure it by a toggle, having a tripping-line (the whole called a squilgee,) from it, leading in on deck.

Seamanship, by Stephen Bleecker Luce, 1863.

Is this is the same word as the one for the cleaning implement? Nobody seems to have the slightest idea.

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Page created 27 Nov 2010