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Q From Bill Waggoner: I’m a fan of the Andy Capp comic and one weird word keeps appearing that apparently means “broke” or “without funds”: skint. Can you tell me anything about it?

A This is a very well-known, originally British English slang term that’s also known throughout the Commonwealth, though to a lesser extent (I think) in Canada. It’s fairly rare in the US, though not unknown: knowledge of it there is probably thanks to Andy Capp.

The meaning is the one you give, illustrated by this sentence from The Sun of 16 Apr. 2015: “Hayley doesn’t care that she is skint, she is going to use loans to redecorate.” It can also sometimes refer to lacking some necessity other than money.

It can be traced back in that spelling and pronunciation to the early years of the twentieth century as a variant of skinned. To be skinned or skinned out was to be deprived of all your money by gambling, frequently of the rigged sort.

Henry Mayhew noted in his London Labour and the London Poor in 1861 that sailors often suffered being skinned, which he said was being “stripped of his clothes and money from being hocussed, or tempted to helpless drunkenness” (to hocuss was to cheat a man by drugging his drink; it’s a variation of an obsolete eighteenth-century noun hocus, trickery or deception, from the magician’s magic formula hocus-pocus; hoax is from the same source).

To skin was by then almost half a century old in the gambling sense and is known from the middle of the previous century for thieving goods. Skinned in the penniless sense survived into the first decades of the twentieth century alongside skint but was gradually ousted by it.

British English also has a related term for being without money: boracic, often said like brassic. This is rhyming slang, from boracic lint, a once common type of surgical dressing.

I understand that he’s now all but skint, totally boracic, with the arse nearly out of his trousers.

Raising Steam, by Terry Pratchett, 2013.

Americans once knew skinning in the related sense of cheating in exams and, often in the form skin out, for absconding or running away; it has also been a dialect or regional form of the past participle of skin in various senses.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 25 Apr. 2015

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 25 April 2015.