The Skinny

This blog gives the skinny about Daniel Cassidy’s atrocious book, How The Irish Invented Slang. The skinny is a slang term meaning ‘the inside knowledge’. It is an American expression and is apparently first found in print in the 1950s.

According to Daniel Cassidy, this is really an Irish expression, sceitheanna [pronounced shkeh-anna] which according to the Great Fraud is an alternative version of the word sceith, which he defines as ‘(act of) spewing; giving away; divulging (a secret).’ In fact, sceitheanna is the plural form of sceith, not an alternative version.

So, what does sceith really mean? According to WinGléacht (the electronic version of Ó Dónaill), sceith (as a noun) means 1. vomit; 2 spawning; 3 overflow, discharge, eruption, spreading; 4 disintegration; 5 sceith aincise, quinsy. Sceith the verb has additional meanings of divulging or giving away information, as in sceitheann meisce mírún (drunkenness gives away evil intent – not ‘bad secrets’ as Cassidy mistranslates it).

But is there any evidence of the nouns sceitheanna or even sceith ever having been used anywhere by any Irish speaker to mean ‘inside information’ or ‘the latest news?’ No, of course there isn’t – any more than people in English say ‘What are the latest vomitings?’ or ‘Give me some spawnings!’ or ‘Have you got the divulgences on the mayor’s affair?’ You will find sceitheanna on Google, but all the references are to leaks (of water, gas) or discharges of things like sewage. Try putting ‘An bhfuil scéal ar bith agat?’ or ‘An bhfuil aon scéal agat?’ into Google as well. You will find numerous instances of these phrases, phrases which really are equivalent to ‘What’s the skinny?’

Is it possible that some group of Irish speakers might have started using sceitheanna in this way in 19th century America? Of course, this isn’t completely and totally impossible but it is very improbable and there is no reason to suppose that they did. There is no evidence and the only person ever to claim this was Daniel Cassidy, who didn’t speak Irish, didn’t know anything about language and whose other claims were almost all fanciful rubbish. The word sceith is complex with many meanings. This is not the most obvious or conspicuous meaning of it and Ó Dónaill doesn’t even give divulging as one of the meanings of the noun. Irish has lots of other ways of saying this which would be more likely to have been used and borrowed and the English word skinny only surfaces very late on, long after the major influx of Irish speaking immigrants in the 19th century and long after almost all their descendants had become English speakers.

This shows a very common feature of Cassidy’s reasoning in this book, its circularity. The supposed source and the supposed derivative are used as ‘evidence’ for each other. Where does skinny come from? From the Irish sceitheanna! And what proof is there of the existence of the Irish sceitheanna? Well, it must exist, it’s the origin of the English term ‘the skinny!’ This is in contrast to genuine borrowings from Irish like shebeen or galore, where síbín and go leor are well attested independently in Irish dictionaries and texts and mean the same as the English borrowings. Anybody looking for the origins of shebeen and galore would quickly find the evidence that they are Irish words. Anyone looking for evidence of the Irish origins of cantankerous or gump or sucker or high-falutin or Holy Mackerel or hundreds of other words and phrases in Cassidy’s dreckfest would fail to find that evidence (apart from a lunatic like Cassidy who was prepared to fabricate it).

So, where does skinny really come from? I don’t know, and it is important to realise that just because we don’t know the real origin of a word doesn’t mean that we should take Cassidy’s (or anybody else’s) fictions as true just because we don’t have anything better. Fools who defend Cassidy with lines like ‘Have you got any better suggestions?’ are hardly likely to contribute much to the sum of human understanding. I would reject sceitheanna as the origin of skinny simply because it’s a very, very unlikely claim, offered by a man whose knowledge of Irish and linguistics was almost non-existent and who had no capacity whatsoever for rational thought.

For what it’s worth, if I had to suggest an origin, I would say that ‘the skinny’ is probably a jocular way of talking about ‘the naked truth’ or ‘the bare bones of the story’ or in Irish, lomchnámh na fírinne. But that’s just a passing suggestion and I have no idea whether it’s right or not.

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