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Q From William B McMillan: Do you know the origin and spelling of the police slang word pronounced skel (often heard on ABC’s NYPD Blue TV show in the USA) which seems to be used to refer to street crooks, thugs, or con men.

A The word is usually spelled skell, and it’s defined in my books as referring to a homeless person, vagrant or derelict, though others have mentioned that there is some idea of small-scale villainy attached to it. It’s an odd word with a mysterious history. In its modern form it’s first recorded only from the 1970s in the US, most especially from New York, though it is almost certainly older.

The origin is supposed by some lexicographers to be a bit of English low-life slang or cant of the seventeenth century, the verb and noun skelder. This described a person who worked as a professional beggar, especially someone who falsely pretended to be a wounded former soldier to gain sympathy; more generally, it could be used for a swindler or cheat. The first recorded use is by Ben Jonson, from his play Poetaster of 1601: “An honest decayed commander, cannot skelder, cheat, nor be seene in a bawdie house”.

It has been suggested that the word came into English from the Dutch schelm, pronounced /skɛlm/ Help with IPA, for a villain or rogue, though where the additional d in skelder came from is not explained. The original Dutch word itself turns up in English at the same period and with the same sense and pronunciation, but with the Anglicised spelling of skelm. Both it and skelder are long obsolete in British English, but South African readers may know skelm as a term for a scoundrel, which came through Afrikaans from the same Dutch source. (If you’re familiar with the Scots skelly, “cross-eyed”, you may think you’ve found a relative, but that has a quite different source, coming from an Old Norse word for “wry, oblique”; it’s possible that scallywag has some connection, but nobody can be sure; the northern English scally, “a roguish, disruptive, self-assured young person” is an abbreviation of scallywag.)

I have to say that others disagree with this whole provenance, arguing that the modern American slang term is nothing more than an abbreviated form of skeleton, in reference perhaps to the emaciated forms of many vagrants.

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Page created 12 Jun 1999