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Q From J L Nelson, Kentucky, USA: The word skosh appeared recently in a Wall Street Journal crossword puzzle and, apparently, means ‘a little bit’. Can you tell me about the derivation of his word? I have checked the OED, Onions on etymology, etc. and have found nothing. It looks like an acronym but I can find none listed in various sources I have checked. Your help will be greatly appreciated.

A It does indeed mean “a little bit”. You surprise me a little by your question, since to me skosh is one of the most American of all words, and yet here am I, based in Britain, telling an American about it.

Though it looks like one, it isn’t an acronym. Its odd appearance is due to its having been imported from Japanese. The original was sukoshi, in Japanese a little bit or a smidgen. It first appeared in print in American English about 1951. Word researchers think American servicemen based in Japan brought it back at the time of the Korean War, though several subscribers have mentioned it was common among American servicemen in Japan in the years immediately following World War Two. It is a member of a group of words imported from Japanese in that period, others being origami, teriyaki, shiatsu, and karate. Skosh is a close imitation of the way that Japanese speakers themselves would say sukoshi in rapid conversation, suggesting that it was primarily communicated orally.

It usually turns up as an noun meaning a little bit, a jot, a small amount (“he solved the problem in a skosh more than 13 days”). One of its earlier appearances in print was in advertisements for Levi’s jeans that offered a fuller fitting for the middle-aged under the slogan “Just a skosh more room”.

Though it is now listed in American dictionaries, my impression is that it is still considered to be slang — it doesn’t often appear in books or newspapers, for example. Dictionaries say it is said as /skəʊʃ/ Help with IPA, with the same vowel sound as in post or roach, or as in the naturalised French word gauche.

Having said all that, may I put a small spanner into the lexicographical works by pointing out that L Frank Baum used the word in his book The Lost Princess of Oz in 1917: “Now that pool, it seems, was unknown to the Yips because it was surrounded by thick bushes and was not near to any dwelling, and it proved to be an enchanted pool, for the frog grew very fast and very big, feeding on the magic skosh which is found nowhere else on earth except in that one pool”. Just a coincidence, I think. I think ...

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