The Grammarphobia Blog

What’s the skinny?

Q: Are you aware of any references to “the skinny” prior to 1967? I was in the US Air Force then and provided an information sheet to briefers on data like runway length, aircraft, equipment, etc. The four-inch-wide sheet was known as “the skinny sheet,” and one of the briefers referred to its information as “the skinny.”

A: The earliest published reference in the Oxford English Dictionary for “the skinny” used in this sense is from The Rolling World, a 1938 autobiography by the adventurer and writer Richard Matthews Hallet:

“Had she really given me the skinny of an actual legend from the archives of her race, or was she wafting me the native poetry of her soul?”

The OED defines the expression this way: “slang (orig. and chiefly U.S.). With the. Detailed and esp. confidential information about a person or topic, ‘the low-down’; (also more generally) news, gossip.”

The dictionary has one other pre-1967 citation for the usage, from The Big War, a 1957 novel by Anton Myrer: “I’ll cut you in on some hot skinnay.”

There’s no reliable explanation for the origin of this sense of “skinny,” as we wrote in a brief blog item on the subject in 2006.

But it’s been speculated that “to get down to the skinny” (that is, to get the essential information about something), was like getting down to the skin of an issue.

For what it’s worth, the Old Icelandic word skinna (a cousin of our “skin”) referred to a piece of parchment or vellum, perhaps influencing a couple of English usages related to information.

The old word may have given us “skin book,” a term that entered English in the 19th century with the meaning of a manuscript made of parchment or vellum.

And though it’s quite a stretch, an imaginative wordie might also see flakes of skinna in the 20th-century slang sense of “skin book” as a pornographic work.

The word “skinny,” by the way, didn’t refer to a scrawny person or animal when it entered English as an adjective around 1400.

The earliest citations in the OED use “skinny” to mean covered with skin, affecting the skin, looking like skin, and perhaps even having beautiful skin.

The colloquial sense of “skinny” as thin or lean didn’t show up until the early 1600s when Shakespeare used it in Macbeth: “Each at once her choppie finger laying Vpon her skinnie Lips.”

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