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Skinny

Q From Lilajane Frascarelli: Where, how and why did the skinny come to mean the inside information, particularly unsavoury gossip?

A To recycle an old etymologist’s joke (more precisely, a joke made by this old etymologist), you want the skinny on skinny? I wish I could help. Many people have asked the experts about this strange word for the inside dope, the lowdown, or the inside knowledge, but none of them has been able to say for sure where it comes from.

What we do know is that as a popular word it’s surprisingly recent. The first example given in the Oxford English Dictionary is from an article in the journal American Speech by Lalia Phipps Boone dated May 1959, discussing slang of the University of Florida; another article in the same journal in 1980 cites a short story that appeared in the Kansas Magazine in 1956: “The skinny was always: You married specifically against death”. Writers and editors must have regarded it either as an unusual word or as low slang, because it doesn’t start to appear much in newspapers and books for another decade and the set phrases what’s the skinny? and here’s the skinny don’t turn up much before the 1980s.

The author of the 1956 story, R V Cassill, was quoted in the 1980 American Speech article as remembering that he first heard the word “persistently and widely used by nearly everyone in the Army and Navy in World War II.” That is partially contradicted by this column filler printed in The Charleroi Mail, Pennsylvania, on 19 February 1945:

The “straight skinny” isn’t an elongated person, but is the “correct dope,” in marine jargon. The expression cropped up for the first time during the heat of battle on Bougainville. Some unidentified marine (gyrene in “slanguage”) asked a mate in a foxhole, “Is that the straight skinny?” and it sounded so natural that it took on. It is now part of the marine vocabulary.
[Gyrene is GI plus marine.]

This snippet was right to connect its popularity with the services but wrong to assume that it was created by a serviceman, or indeed only shortly before he wrote. That’s because it’s known slightly pre-war. In 1938 Richard Hallet wrote in his autobiography, The Rolling World, “Had she really given me the skinny of an actual legend from the archives of her race?”

As to what the unsung inventor, whenever or whoever he was, had in mind, there’s little consensus. The most plausible suggestion comes from Robert Chapman in his Dictionary of American Slang in 1997: that it includes the normal meaning of skin but implying “the naked truth”.

As matters stand, that’s the best explanation we have.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 23 Aug. 2008

Advice on copyright

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: 23 August 2008.