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Skunk works

Q From Martin Hayman: I was having an interesting discussion with an American professor of business studies who also consults to industry. She was recalling an unbudgeted initiative within a major software corporate, which the UK managing director described as a skunk project. I have seen this epithet before, usually in the phrase skunk works, meaning a semi-official project team that is tacitly licensed to bend the rules and think outside the box. I wonder what the derivation is? I don’t think it can refer to the smelly wild animal, but neither I think can it refer to the street term for a strong variant of marijuana. Can you shed any light?

A We must start in Dogpatch, the fictional place in the backwoods of Kentucky (or possibly Arkansas) made famous between 1934 and 1977 as the home of professional mattress tester Li’l Abner, in the comic strip written and drawn by Al Capp. The original was Skonk Works (skonk is a dialect variant of skunk), the place of unexplained function near which Lonesome Polecat and Hairless Joe brewed their highly illicit bootleg Kickapoo Joy Juice from ingredients such as old shoes and dead skunks.

We must now move to the very real Burbank, California. In 1943, a small group of aeronautical engineers working for the then Lockheed Aircraft Corporation (headed by Clarence “Kelly” Johnson) were given the rush job of creating an entirely new plane from scratch, the P-80 “Shooting Star” jet fighter. This they did in 143 days, 37 days ahead of schedule. Their secret project was housed in a temporary structure roofed over with an old circus tent, which had been thrown up next to a smelly plastics factory. The story goes that one of the engineers answered the phone on a hot summer day with the phrase “Skonk Works here” and the name stuck. It is also said that Al Capp objected to their use of his term and it was changed to Skunk Works.

One division of the company, formally the Lockheed Martin Advanced Development Program, is still known as the Skunk Works. The term has been trademarked by Lockheed Martin, who have been aggressive in protecting it.

As a generic term, it dates from the 1960s. One definition is very much that of the original and the one you describe: a small group of experts who drop out of the mainstream of a company’s operations in order to develop some experimental technology or new application in secrecy or at speed, unhampered by bureaucracy or the strict application of regulations (Kelly Johnson formulated 14 visionary rules for running such an operation, which are still regarded as valid even now). It is also sometimes used for a similar group that operates semi-illicitly, without top-level official knowledge or support, though usually with the tacit approval of immediate management.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 10 Aug. 2002

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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: 10 August 2002.