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 since the mid-20th century the more common phrase for a rundown area has been “skid row.”
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. (Interestingly, a later variant term for this structure was “skid row.”) 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 for “skid road” 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” in that example 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, along with other working stiffs, 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. 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.
Evidence seems to indicate that the “skid row” version may be a Canadianism.
Oxford’s earliest examples for the disreputable “skid row” date from 1931, but the author and word researcher Fred Shapiro has reported these sightings from the 1920s (note that the first two are from Canadian newspapers and the third refers to Vancouver):
“The picnic is for Shriners and their friends and starts at 1:30. … Numerous tents and banners have sprung up indicating the Shriner’s skid row” (a perhaps humorous usage, from The Vancouver Daily World, Aug. 23, 1920).
“Two years out of the ring has put the champion on skid row” (The Ottawa Journal, June 21, 1923).
“Fred Daniels drifted with the ‘push’ from coast to coast for twenty-five years … frequented the Barrell houses and ‘can dumps’ from the ‘skid row’ in Vancouver, B.C. to the ‘Dutch Mans’ in exchange alley New Orleans” (The Lincoln [NE] Star, June 10, 1927).
So in only about half a century, a usage that began as a road on which logs were skidded to a saw mill now meant 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.