Word Improvisation

Investigations of slang by the editor of the Random House Dictionary of American Slang.

With a sixty-second news cycle for the media and a zillion words of the inside story coursing the Net, there's more undigested information -- or rumor -- today than anybody can handle. Some fraction of that rumor turns out to be important and true. As the popular Web site Motley Fool advises eager investors, "It might look good on paper, but you should still check out the scuttlebutt." That means the current word of mouth, what show-biz reporters call the buzz.

Bob Hope once observed that somebody must have coined scuttlebutt after drifting astern of Bing Crosby -- Hope's straight man in Road to Morocco and other 1940s comedies. But a hundred years earlier the Harvard-educated Richard Henry Dana Jr. had used the word in its original sense in his classic account of a voyage to Spanish California, Aboard Dana's brig, the Pilgrim, the scuttle-butt (earlier scuttled butt) was a wooden cask (or butt) set up on deck with a section scuttled, or cut out, to allow sailors to dip themselves a drink of water. (When drinking fountains replaced water casks on shipboard, the designation scuttlebutt was applied to them, too.) Anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of the social habits of Americans around water coolers has already guessed the next step. The kind of idle talk exchanged around the scuttlebutt became proverbial as scuttlebutt news (what sailors and Marines had previously called galley yarns, for similar reasons; the Army prefers latrine rumors). Early in the twentieth century the term scuttlebutt news saw its second element scuttled. By World War II the new, gossipy sense of scuttlebutt was general in the U.S. Navy, the Coast Guard, and the Marine Corps.

Though the English evidently created the old "water cask" sense of scuttlebutt, its figurative sense is pretty clearly an Americanism -- one of many slang terms that jumped from military to civilian usage during and after World War II. It has begun to catch on in Britain only in the past thirty years or so. When seeking the news, Royal Navy slang used to make do with griff, "news, information" (short for griffin, "a betting tip," a meaning in which this word is of uncertain origin), and the Royal Air Force with gen, "information of any kind," a term occasionally affected by American fliers in England, which derived either from "genuine" or from the bureaucratic heading "For the General Information of All Ranks."

With an alacrity uncommon among the world's languages, English can make nouns into verbs almost by sleight of hand: no special grammatical endings are needed. So scuttlebutt has effortlessly turned itself into a verb meaning "to gossip or talk, esp. idly: exchange scuttlebutt." Today the newer verb form of scuttlebutt is taking off in business circles, where it can carry connotations of getting the scoop, the lowdown, the inside dope, the skinny, on competitors through the seemingly innocuous means of chitchat.

The originally journalistic scoop began as a verb meaning "to get the better of (someone)." The lowdown, now approaching a century of popularity, may once have abbreviated some such phrase as "the low-down truth." Dope, which has had a protean career in American English, with meanings ranging all the way from "an illicit drug" to "a dolt" to "excellent" (in hip-hop lingo), may have also come to mean "information" because of its appearance in dope sheet, or "racing form" (probably implying that a racing form can help handicappers to tell if a horse has been "doped" prior to a race).

But getting the lowdown on the skinny remains elusive. It has been around for some time, probably more than fifty years, which is easily long enough for a word origin to get lost permanently. The most reasonable suggestion -- though one still unproved -- may be that skinny stems from the slang name given to a thin sheet of carbonized manifold paper used in creating multiple copies of orders, manifests, and the like. (Such sheets also go by the name flimsies.)The skinny would thus mean, literally, that thin sheet of paper with the authoritative data on it. Appealing as this theory is, it has a serious weakness: lexicographers haven't yet found a written example of the "flimsy" sense of skinny that goes back far enough to prove it.

J.E. Lighter is the editor of the Random House Dictionary of American Slang.

Illustration by Nancy Gibson-Nash.

The Atlantic Monthly; October 2000; Word Improvisation - 00.10; Volume 286, No. 4; page 140.