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Q From Pat Aithie: A friend told me that the word skive, to get off work, is from the leather on top of a desk where elbows would rest and therefore no work was done? Is this right and do you know the origin of this word?

A Interesting. Completely wrong, but interesting.

Skive is British slang for avoiding work by staying away or leaving early; it's often heard in the form skive off; US readers may find it in British works such as the more recent ones in the Harry Potter series. It seems to have been military slang from the time of the First World War and the common assumption is that the British army in France borrowed it from French esquiver, to slink away. The usual caveats apply, since that origin is informed guesswork, and there’s another possibility — an English dialect verb meaning to move quickly.

The reason why the purported origin is interesting is that another well-known meaning of skive, to split or cut a material such as leather into slices or strips, or to shave or pare a material to reduce its thickness, has been incorporated into the story. The word isn't that old (only recorded from the 1820s) but almost certainly goes back to Old Norse. A person who carries out this work is also a skiver, but is much more respectable than the slang version.

So there is an association with leather, but using a piece as a place to rest your elbows certainly isn't it!

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 2 Oct. 2004

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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.

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
This page URL: http://www.worldwidewords.org/qa/qa-ski1.htm
Last modified: 2 October 2004.