The Grammarphobia Blog

Skid row or skid road?

Q: In discussing a crackdown on homeless people in Los Angeles, I got into a disagreement with a friend over the terms “skid row” and “skid road.” I think it’s “row” and my friend says “road.” Any information?

A: Standard dictionaries accept both “skid row” and “skid road” as terms for a rundown part of town frequented by people down on their luck. The usage originated as “skid road,” a logging term, in the late 19th century, but the more common wording for a rundown area has been “skid row” since the mid-20th century.

When “skid road” first showed up in writing, it referred to “a way or track formed of skids along which logs are hauled,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The dictionary describes “skids” as “peeled logs or timbers, partially sunk into the ground, and forming a roadway along or down which logs are drawn or slid.”

The earliest OED example is from an 1880 topographical survey of the Adirondacks region: “Advised that lumbermen had cut ‘skid-roads’ on which logs were drawn.”

However, we’ve found this earlier example from the Oct. 30, 1875, issue of the Pacific Rural Press, a weekly published in San Francisco: “Six yoke of oxen were drawing a log over the skid road.” The “skid road” here was a log road leading to a saw mill in northern California. Many early examples are from the West Coast.

Green’s Dictionary of Slang suggests that the original “skid road” may have been a log road that led down to Yesler’s mill in Seattle in the 1850s. But we’ve seen no written evidence that what is now Yesler Way was referred to as a “skid road” earlier than the 1875 California citation above.

In the early 20th century, “skid road” came to mean an area of a town where loggers congregated. The first OED citation, which we’ve expanded here, is from an Aug. 1, 1906, entry in the ship’s log of the SS Columbia, which carried cargo and passengers along the West Coast: “ ‘We’ll likely see him in town.’ ‘Sure, Mike. He’ll be in the Skid road somewhere.’ ”

Such logging hangouts, with their saloons and gambling houses, were soon attracting all sorts of workers who wanted to unwind in their time off. Green’s Dictionary cites this example: “ ‘Skid-road’ is another word from the lumber industry. It has come to mean any street where the ‘working stiff’ hangs out” (from “Westernisms,” a paper by Kate Mullen published in American Speech, December 1925).

The term “skid row” showed up a couple of years later as these honky-tonk areas developed an unsavory reputation. Green’s cites this example from a glossary of criminal slang: “Skid row, n., the lowest strata of the underworld” (“Jargon of the Underworld,” Elisha K. Kane,  Dialect Notes, 1927).

Finally, these places (and their denizens) fell on hard times, with both “skid row” and “skid road” now meaning a “run-down area of a town where the unemployed, vagrants, alcoholics, etc., tend to congregate,” the OED says.

We’ve found this early example in a California newspaper: “Skid row, where down-and-outers find 10-cent beds and 10-cent meals” (San Bernardino Sun, April 6, 1935).

In a little over half a century, a usage that began as a road on which logs were skidded to a saw mill was now a place where people had skidded into lives of insolvency, dissolution, and defeat.

As we’ve said, dictionaries now include “skid row” and “skid road” as standard English. The more common term is “skid row,” though the use of both has fallen off in recent years, according to Google’s Ngram Viewer, which compares words or phrases in digitized books.

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