Q: I wonder about the derivation of “drunk as a skunk” and other skunkish expressions.
A: Through no fault of its own (or none that it can help), the unfortunate skunk has inspired many expressions, none of them complimentary.
But we believe that “drunk as a skunk,” an American expression that originated in the 1920s, is merely rhyming slang and has no real connection with skunkdom.
We say this because for more than 600 years, the inebriated have been described as “drunk as a” something-or-other, animate or inanimate. And generally the noun of comparison has little to do with alcohol consumption.
The formula “drunk as a …” began appearing in the late 14th century “in various proverbial phrases and locutions,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
The original version was “drunk as a mouse,” the OED says. This is from “The Knight’s Tale” (1385), the first of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and we’re expanding the Oxford citation to add context:
“We fare as he þt dronke is as a Mous / A dronke man woot wel he hath an hous / But he noot which the righte wey is thider” (“We act like one that is drunk as a mouse. / A drunk man knows well that he has a house, / But he does not know which is the right way there”).
We found another use by Chaucer in “The Wife of Bath’s Tale”: “If that I walke or pleye unto his hous. / Thou comest hoom as dronken as a mous” (“If I go for amusement to his house, / You come home as drunken as a mouse”).
The association of mice with drunkenness may have begun with an ancient fable about a tipsy mouse who’s rescued by a cat after becoming trapped in a vessel of wine or beer. Versions of the fable, first recorded in Latin by Odo of Cheriton in his Parabolæ in the early 1200s, was much repeated in various collections during the Middle Ages.
On the other hand, it may be that “mouse” was chosen simply to rhyme with “house.” In several songs and poems after Chaucer’s time, lines ending “drunk as a mouse” rhymed with “house” or “alehouse.”
But as we mentioned, the expression “drunk as a …” has accommodated a Noah’s Ark of animals. Since Chaucer’s time, according to slang dictionaries, “mouse” has been joined by “swine,” “hog,” “sow,” “pig,” “duck,” “owl,” “dog,” “cat” “kit,” “rat,” “monkey,” “jaybird,” “loon,” “bat,” “coon,” “fish,” “fly,” “fowl,” “tick,” “donkey,” “coot,” “goat,” and of course “skunk.”
Humans have also joined the inebriated crew, and “drunk as a …” has included “lord,” “earl,” “emperor,” “pope,” “fiddler,” “beggar,” “bastard,” “piper,” “poet,” “sailor,” “cook,” “parson,” “porter,” and “tinker.”
And let’s not forget inanimate objects: “drum,” “sack,” “besom” (a broom), “log,” “wheelbarrow,” “top,” and “little red wagon.” We can certainly imagine a couple of those wobbling erratically.
In this long litany of inebriation, many of them hundreds of years old, “skunk” is a latecomer. The OED’s earliest use of “drunk as a skunk” is less than a century old: “O Dan, you’re drunk! You’re drunk as a skunk!” (From The Heart of Old Kentucky, collected in New Plays for Mummers, 1926, by Glenn Hughes.)
Our bet is that earlier uses of “drunk as a skunk” will turn up, because the “drunk”/“skunk” rhyme scheme had already suggested itself generations earlier. We found a couple of 19th-century examples:
“My wife she is a hateful scold, / And when I am half drunk, / She will begin to fret and scold, / And call me a dirty skunk.” (From “Soliloquy of a Drunkard,” published in the Philadelphia Scrap Book, April 26, 1834.)
“Ter see a man come home so drunk / It makes her loathe him like a skunk.” (From a temperance poem in Godey’s Lady’s Book and Magazine, January 1876.)
So much for skunks and alcohol. You asked about other “skunkish expressions,” and most of them have to do with things (or people) that are to be avoided or scorned.
Since the early 19th century, the OED says, “skunk” has been a colloquial noun for “a dishonest, mean, or contemptible person,” a usage the dictionary describes as “chiefly North American.”
The dictionary’s earliest example is about politics: “There were five skunks, who apostatized from Republicanism, within a few months back, and voted the Federal ticket on Monday last” (the Maryland Republican, Annapolis, Oct. 12, 1813).
And the adjectives “skunk-like” (1815) and “skunkish” (1831), the OED says, have meant “dishonest, mean, or contemptible” … “reminiscent of a skunk, esp. in odour or appearance” … “resembling or suggestive of a skunk.”
The word has also been a verb since the 19th century. To “skunk” someone means to defeat or get the better of (1832), as in “I skunked her at backgammon.” It can even mean to swindle or defraud someone (1867), as in “He skunked me out of $10.” Both senses are also used passively, and to be “skunked” is to be unsuccessful or to be cheated.
“Skunk” is also etymologically interesting. The animal is a native of the Americas, and its name is thoroughly American too.
As the OED says, it was borrowed into English from a “Southern New England Algonquian language.” And it’s apparently connected to the notion of a urinating fox.
Though the original Algonquian source is uncertain, the word has cousins in related languages: Western Abenaki (segôgw), Unami Delaware (šká:kw), and Meskwaki (shekâkwa), the last of which consists of the Algonquian elements shek– (to urinate) and wâkw– (fox).
In English, the word was first recorded as “squuncke” in 17th-century New England, the OED says. The earliest known use is in a list of animals likely to rob a henhouse: “The beasts of offence be Squunckes, Ferrets, Foxes” (from New Englands Prospect, 1634, by William Wood).
[Note: An Australian reader of the blog writes on June 19, 2020, with a courtroom quip attributed to the early 20th-century British statesman and lawyer Frederick Edwin Smith, 1st Earl of Birkenhead: “Smith (to the Court): At the time, my client was as drunk as a judge. Judge (interjecting): Mr. Smith, I think you’ll find the phrase is ‘as drunk as a lord.’ Smith: As your lordship pleases.”]
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