« previous post | next post »

There are a bunch of insulting sk- words — scummy, scurvy, scruffy, scuzzy, sketchy come to mind. And everybody, even a snoot, seems to like negative-vibe phonetic symbolism. So if you try to make up a new word on this general pattern, say "skudgy", you'll probably find that many others have been there before you: "…by the next time we drag them out for bath-time play, we find that a skudgy sort of water is dispelled from the interior"; "The poet noted that the garage had a 'skudgy down-to-earth-ness'". Maybe skudgy is just a portmanteau of scummy and sludgy, or maybe we need to recognize the resonance with other words like scuzzy and dingy; but in any case, it's out there, waiting to be re-invented.

And that's how I reacted to the last word in today's Tank McNamara:

I knew I'd heard it before, but I figured it was just another onomatopoeic amalgam.

According to the OED, I was wrong. The gloss, as you'd expect, is "Disgusting, distasteful, or dirty; discomforting; sleazy". But the etymology is more interesting:

[< Italian regional (Tuscany) schifo, adjective (< Italian schifo (noun) sense of repugnance, nausea, disgust (1353 in Boccaccio) < Old French eschif hostile, fierce: see ESCHEW a.) + -Y. Cf. later SKEEVE v., SKEEVE n.]

And the first citation brings it close to home:

1976 J. D'ALESSANDRO in Philadelphia Mag. Mar. 125/1 The word ‘skeevie’ used by South Philadelphians to indicate something disgusting is from Italian ‘schifare’, to loathe.

I'm a little skeptical about South Philly slang coming from Tuscany, though.


  1. Jim said,

    June 22, 2009 @ 10:52 pm

    As a South Philly native, this was very common slang (tho surely not from Tuscany) in the '80s. I remember it used more often as a verb: "I skeeve!" (i.e., that disgusts me).

  2. Nathan Myers said,

    June 22, 2009 @ 11:48 pm

    I wonder about a relation to "skivvies", underwear.

  3. Ryan Denzer-King said,

    June 23, 2009 @ 1:59 am

    I remember when living in Italy I used to hear "che schifu!", approximating the meaning being discussed here, or, more strongly, directed at a person to mean "what an a-hole".

  4. Ryan Denzer-King said,

    June 23, 2009 @ 1:59 am

    Just wanted to add, since it's probably relevant, that this was in Bergamo, just north of Milan.

  5. Eric said,

    June 23, 2009 @ 3:31 am

    A similar word that comes to mind is skeezy, which I would have placed as roughly synonymous with skeevy, though maybe with slightly different connotations. I tend to associate it with internet slang, though I don't know how justified that is. The top hits from a google search yield gay porn (not a connection I would have made prior to said google search) and the urban dictionary, which offers, among other things, portmanteaus of sleazy and skanky, or sleazy and sketchy.

  6. boynamedsue said,

    June 23, 2009 @ 3:49 am

    Schifo isn't regional, it's standard Italian (at least now). I've heard it used by Napolitans, Romans, Bergemascos, Milanese, Genoese and Turinese,

    Schifu is "schifo" with a Bergemasco accent, pota!

  7. Jeff said,

    June 23, 2009 @ 3:54 am

    I grew up in a half Southern Italian, half Sicilian family. Heard the word schifoso (f. schifosa) all my life. And, I lived in CT (during the 60s until the mid-1970s) where there was a heavy concentration of Southern Italians. The word skeevey caught on in our slang during the early and mid-70s.

  8. CIngram said,

    June 23, 2009 @ 4:30 am

    Nathan Myers said,

    I wonder about a relation to "skivvies", underwear.

    In and around London a skivvy is a maidservant, with the implication that she is exploited in some way. I've never heard it used to mean underwear. (The OED says etymology unknown for the servant meaning, and very tentatively suggests Nautical for the underclothes. And to skive means to go awol from class or work. That's a bit more widely used I think.

    And what about all the 'fast movement over a surface' words, like skate, skid, scoot, scud, skim, and maybe even skip (and skive itself)? Nothing negative there, but something must link their phonology to their meaning.

  9. Aaron Davies said,

    June 23, 2009 @ 5:10 am

    it was a fairly common word word among my friends in college; it was generally used to describe a person, with a sort of overtone of "dirty old man". e.g., "it's so skeevy how he stares at girls."

  10. Faldone said,

    June 23, 2009 @ 6:07 am

    I know I first heard "skivvies" for underwear in the Navy, but then I heard first heard a lot of things in the Navy. It was pretty much my first exposure to things not Chicago.

  11. hsgudnason said,

    June 23, 2009 @ 6:39 am

    1976 J. D'ALESSANDRO in Philadelphia Mag. Mar. 125/1 The word ‘skeevie’ used by South Philadelphians to indicate something disgusting is from Italian ‘schifare’, to loathe.

    Is this Joe d'Alessandro, the Andy Warhol star? Was he commenting on regional dialects back when he was in his 20s?

  12. boynamedsue said,

    June 23, 2009 @ 6:48 am

    "In and around London a skivvy is a maidservant, with the implication that she is exploited in some way. I've never heard it used to mean underwear. (The OED says etymology unknown for the servant meaning, and very tentatively suggests Nautical for the underclothes. And to skive means to go awol from class or work. That's a bit more widely used I think."

    Skive comes fom "schivare", which means "dodge". Probably came through Polari (for those who don't know it, a gay slang based on mediterranean sailors pidgin), and took the meaning of dodge in the English slang "a right dodge".

    Skivvy could have come from either "Schifo" or "schvare" in the same way,

  13. Doc Rock said,

    June 23, 2009 @ 8:08 am

    During the post-WWII US occupation of Japan, GI's developed a pidgin based on Japanese and earlier Chinese pidgin. A famous term from the era being "just a _skosh_ more" from Japanese _sukoshi_ meaning few or little. From the demimonde GIs borrowed Japanese _sukebi_ meaning dirty or lewd and it came out "skivvie" as in "you takusan (very much, a lot) skivvie hancho (boss, chief) alla time catchee (obtain) josan (woman), pushee pushee (self-explanatory)." I wonder if the OED might not be off the mark in this case.

  14. J. W. Brewer said,

    June 23, 2009 @ 9:28 am

    @Jim, I was in high school in the early 80's only 20-25 miles from South St. (although in a pretty different ethnocultural/linguistic environment), but the intransitive "I skeeve" use is not one I can recall encountering. The standard verbal construction I'm familiar with is "[such-and-such] skeeves me out." (There are plenty of google hits for "skeeves me out" showing various contexts.) Accordingly, my initial stab at interpreting the novel-to-me "I skeeve" would be "I cause [someone else] to be skeeved out," but I take it that's not the meaning you associate with the phrase.

  15. John Lawler said,

    June 23, 2009 @ 10:02 am

    Yes, the two-dimensional aspect is important. sk- words more often than not have some reference to (frequently unbounded) surfaces, especially movement along them. Here's the list from the database (49 out of 87):

    skip scutcheon scud scatter score scuff sconce scorch scuffle scar schooner scull scarf scoop skull scow skulk scour scald scum skein scupper sketch skirmish skid scurry skiff scarab skillet scourge scarum sky skirl scathe skin scale scurf scab skirt scape scalp scuttle skate scamper scat scan skim scoot skelter

  16. Robert Carroll said,

    June 23, 2009 @ 10:22 am

    I remember skeevy as a fairly common term back in the 1960s in Brooklyn (NY). It was usually used to describe someone who was unattractive or who had gross habits. There was also a noun form, skeeve, as in "Ewww, she's such a skeeve."

  17. Rich B. said,

    June 23, 2009 @ 11:43 am

    The modern usage I hear most often in Philadelphia is "Skeeved out," meaning essentially "grossed out."

    The "Sk-" connotation may be relatively recent, though, as I don't believe there was an intended negative connotation to "Skeezix" from Gasoline Alley in the 1920s.

  18. rpsms said,

    June 23, 2009 @ 1:12 pm

    I can attest to NJ (suburbs of Philadelphia) usage being of the form "skeeves me out." I had not heard this term until I came to philadelphia from Rochester NY for college in 1988.

    My wife and her friends had used it often, she's from South Jersey.

  19. John Laviolette said,

    June 23, 2009 @ 2:52 pm

    @John Lawler: you might want to remove some of those words from the list as loan-words from Old Norse, which pair up with original English words beginning with sh-: scatter/shatter, scuffle/shuffle, scoot/shoot, skiff/ship, etc. Or, alternately, we could look at Proto-Germanic sk-words to see if the pattern was there…

  20. Nathan Myers said,

    June 23, 2009 @ 3:03 pm

    Cingram: There seem to be a very large number of locomotion words starting with "s", of which the "sk" words form an interesting, frenetic subset. To John Lawler's list I would add "skitter", which doesn't seem to fit John Laviolette's caution. But why remove Old Norse loan words? Maybe Old Norse is the true home of "s" locomotive words.

  21. J. W. Brewer said,

    June 23, 2009 @ 3:24 pm

    How can we tell if there's really a pejorative group of sk-initial words like the mysterious gl- cluster (gleam, glint, glow, etc etc etc)? Skiff, for example, doesn't have that overtone. Nor (usually) does skirt (Norse-origin doublet for shirt, I think). Is it a spelling thing rather than a sound thing where the sk- rather than sc- spelling for the same sound is unusual (note most of the non-pejorative Norse-origin words are in sc-) and conveys something distinctive? (I believe it was an old vaudeville maxim that placenames beginning in K like Keokuk and Kalamazoo were intrinsically funny.) But moving along alphabetically, I can come up with a bunch of sl-initial words that are generally or sometimes pejorative: slimy, slippery, slutty, slink (as in slink away), SLORC (the comically villainous-sounding Burmese junta in one of its prior incarnations). Sm- has smirk and smutty. Sn- has snaky and sneaky. And so on. Is the problem s-wide?

  22. Nathan Myers said,

    June 23, 2009 @ 4:21 pm

    Maybe there are just a lot of words that start with "s".

    The proposed Italian origin of the original word calls to mind the common Italian "s-" prefix which seems similar in intent to "dis-" in English. That might account for a strong current of negativity in italianate "s" words.

  23. Ryan Denzer-King said,

    June 23, 2009 @ 5:04 pm

    @Nathan: that's an interesting observation. There are a lot of negative Italian words that start with sC: schifu (in the Bergemasco dialect I heard as a child), stronzo, strega, sbagliato….

  24. Amy Stoller said,

    June 23, 2009 @ 7:15 pm

    I learned it from a neighbor of Sicilian extraction, way back in the 1970s: "That guy really skeeves me."

  25. CIngram said,

    June 24, 2009 @ 5:01 am

    @John Lawler

    Thanks for the link to the database. Fascinating stuff.

  26. Dave Brown said,

    June 24, 2009 @ 7:32 am

    Doc Rock mentioned the Japanese-derived "skosh" (which is amusingly nearly-unrecognizable unless you know that that's how it's actually pronounced in Japanese), which I think is interesting in the context of all the other "sk-" words: it has a completely neutral meaning, unlike the rest of them.

  27. Bryan said,

    June 25, 2009 @ 8:38 pm

    I am 26, and have heard and used the word in the same sense Aaron Davies mentions both in Central Florida and now in Austin, Texas. Usually either in the form "skeevy" or "skeeved out". Usually with a sexual sense, usually used to describe men.

  28. Pliny said,

    June 26, 2009 @ 1:25 pm

    Steely Dan, "Cousin Dupree" (2000)

    One night we're playin' gin by a cracklin' fire
    And I decided to make my play
    I said babe with my boyish charm and good looks
    How can you stand it for one more day
    She said maybe its the skeevy look in your eyes
    Or that your mind has turned to applesauce
    The dreary architecture of your soul
    I said – but what is it exactly turns you off?

  29. Emery Snyder said,

    June 27, 2009 @ 8:25 pm

    The Dictionary of American Regional English has an entry for skeevy with more information. You can find the word 'schifo' and the related verb in southern italian dialects as well as Tuscan, which explains its presence in the eastern US.

  30. Donna said,

    July 5, 2009 @ 9:49 pm

    I grew up, in NJ, saying, "that skeeves me" or "he's so skeevy". And in my mostly-Italian community, I would say it was largely assumed that it came from schifo since people would say, in the same manner, "fa schifo".

  31. Quantum Mechanic said,

    July 6, 2009 @ 11:04 pm

    "that skeeves me" or "that's/he's skeevy" was common usage in central RI twenty years ago.

  32. Portia said,

    October 20, 2009 @ 10:33 pm

    For instances of a newer (I assume?), similar-sounding and -meaning term in (entertainment, especially) news, check here:

    I had never heard "skeevy," but I certainly would use this incredibly productive term "skeezeball" probably being my term of choice.

    It combines the connotations of "sketch" and "creepy."

  33. Denise said,

    November 6, 2009 @ 9:41 pm

    I'm from Brooklyn, NY and this is, and always has been a common word. It can be used in many ways… like "I skeeve the rest stop bathrooms" or referring to something or someone that "skeeves you out"; then there is of course "he's such a skeeve"; "that's so skeevy"… but my greatest contribution here will be "the skeeve shots". This was the late 70's early 80's

    When we were little kids and someone did something gross or you were just picking on them you would give each other the "skeeve shots" to ward the person off… or just make them feel bad LOL – It went "circle, circle, dot, dot I've got the skeeve shots" and you would draw circles and dots with your finger on your arm or the arm of someone else while saying that.
    Lastly, I have to add that it is certainly of italian origin… my grandmother always says 'fa schifo'… and I have often heard other Italian people say fa schif! – pronounced "fa schieve"

  34. 6thFamilyGirl said,

    December 16, 2009 @ 5:09 am

    I grew up in a Sicilian-American town, and I remember hearing "skeevy" since I was a little kid, 20-some years ago; according to the old folks, it definitely came from the old Italian.

RSS feed for comments on this post