Sketchy lexicography

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JS writes:

I don't think I used the word "sketchy" till I came to college in Virginia, but now I use it with such frequency (especially whenever a party, a city or nightlife is involved) that I am surprised that the meaning I use most for it is not included in most dictionaries. Is there a way to track the evolution of the word? How recent is it, and what its geographical distribution?

He's talking about sketchy in a sense something like "questionable, iffy, untrustworthy, unsafe, poor quality, creepy, deprecated".

Some examples from the web:

There's an area near the river in town that is really sketchy: a lot of muggings and violence, and naturally lots of graffiti.
The Husband has since talked to some of the doctors who work with him now and they say this doctor and practice is really sketchy. They don't recommend he take the job and worry how it would affect his reputation.
When you have a sketchy driving record like me, and you, just shop around, you have to go with the large outfits as they can absorb higher risk folks.
I don't think its laced with cocaine since the guy dealing to us isn't a sketchy guy lol.
Anyways, I wasn't trying to compare the morals of salesmen with sketchy bankers.
hair is spilitting at the ends and bangs need a trim but dont know where to get a cheap but not sketchy haircut
The word "rise" seems to be attached to really crappy sequels and prequels: Rise of the machines, rise of the lycans, rise of the Cobra, Rise of the silver surfer, Carlito's Way: rise to power. So sketchy.
If any of you ever see me at a show or an event, and I hand you a baked good, it’s really not sketchy. It’s simply because I’m a nice girl.
That was in the early '90s in a sketchy building on the Lower East Side (which was still very sketchy back then and had no boutique hotels or non-dive trendy bars).

My assumption (without real evidence) is that that this usage started with the sense "composed of an outline without much detail" (OED sense 2), and the figurative extension "Of a light, flimsy, unsubstantial or imperfect nature" (OED sense 3), further extended via the phonetic associations of neighbor-words like scummy, scurvy, scruffy, scuzzy, skeevy.

This usage has come up in a few LL posts over the years (e.g. "Sketchballs", 2/18/2006; "Skeevy", 6/22/2009), but we've never tried to track its origin and progress in time and space.  It's not easy to do this, because even today, the great majority of uses of sketchy are the more traditional senses.

One way past this problem is to look for particular collocations (like "sketchy guy(s)") that are highly likely to involve the new sense. Tracking this phrase in Google books, we find this from the teen novel Brave New Girl (2001):

He looks like a crazy person, like some sketchy guy you'd see on TV. Actually, more like some stupid actor playing some sketchy guy — too good-looking to actually be sketchy.

And this from Dana Lear, Sex and sexuality: risk and relationships in the age of AIDS (1997):

He learned a year later that she'd been mostly unsafe with her previous partner, who was a fly-by-night, a sketchy guy, a businessman, …

Here's from Betty & Pansy's Severe Queer Review of New York City (1994):

This is where everyone goes when J's (see Cruising, Sex Clubs) kicks you out at 8 a.m. Because it is one of the only bars open in the neighborhood at 8 am, warm, and other sketchy guys are there.

But before 1994, the Google Books trail goes cold for "sketchy guy(s)". Turning to "sketchy street", we find Amanda Anderson, Tainted Souls and Painted Faces: The Rhetoric of Fallenness in Victorian Culture (1993):

Dickens's depictions of Alice Marwood, the sketchy street woman, and Edith Dombey, the commodified wife, reveal how his emergent preoccupations with …

Checking out "sketchy neighborhood", the earliest clear example is in Fodor's Italy '96: On the Loose (published in 1995):

The main drawback is the sketchy neighborhood; women might not want to wander around alone at night.

FWIW, my own memory is that I first heard this usage among students in the early 1990s. So I'd guess that it originated somewhat earlier, perhaps in late 1980s, and then spread through the usual youth-culture channels.  I have no idea whether a particular geographical, ethnic, or affinity-group subculture was the source.

But it won't surprise me if Ben Zimmer finds an example in Mark Twain's letters.

[By the way, not all dictionaries are out-of-date with this one. It's not in the OED, AHD, or Encarta, but Merriam-Webster online has

3 : questionable, iffy <got into a sketchy situation> <a sketchy character> ]

[Update — here's another piece of evidence about the time-course. In the Switchboard corpus (2,400 telephone conversations collected in 1990-1991), there are no instances of sketchy (in either the old or the new meaning). In the Fisher corpus (11,699 conversations collected in 2003), there are 47 instances, all of them involving the new meaning.

So whenever and wherever the new sense originated, it spread through the American population at large during the 1990s. This is consistent with the evidence from Google Books, where it starts showing up in 1994 or so.]

[Update — it occurs to me that there might be some historical connection with the obsolete slang usage glossed by the OED as "A ridiculous sight, a very amusing person; so hot sketch, a comical or colourful person":

1917 S. LEWIS Job xx. 299 You women cer'nly are a sketch! 1921 H. C. WITWER Leather Pushers x. 269 This Roberts is a hot sketch for a fighter, anyways! 1925 E. HEMINGWAY In Our Time (1926) 84 You're a hot sketch. Who the hell asked you to butt in here? 1926 MAINES & GRANT Wise-Crack Dict. 9/2 He's a sketch, he's comical. 1930 J. DOS PASSOS 42nd Parallel v. 399 ‘He's a hot sketch,’ said one of the girls to the other. 1930 J. B. PRIESTLEY Angel Pavement xi. 604 You do look a sight, Dad… I never saw such a sketch.



  1. JKallay said,

    March 13, 2010 @ 9:04 am

    I found an example from 1962 which seems to be used in the same sense. "my husband and I were dropped at the sketchy landing-place on St Agnes…"

    [(myl) It's hard to tell from the snippet-view context, but this fits well enough with the OED's sense 3 "Of a light, flimsy, unsubstantial or imperfect nature", which is attested back into the 1800s.]

    Having grown up in the late 80's and early 90's, I remember first hearing the term used a lot by the skater kids.

  2. Adrian Mander said,

    March 13, 2010 @ 9:04 am

    I remember first seeing this word used in the snowboarding culture of the early 1990's, to describe terrain. You would describe a jump and/ or landing as sketchy if it was rutted, icy, had a rock that was hard to avoid, or whatever. I seem to recall seeing the word used this way both locally (in the interior of BC) and in national US magazines.

  3. Mark said,

    March 13, 2010 @ 9:38 am

    I suspect it's driven by the usage of "sketchy character". In crime and moral novels, there's clearly a correspondence between a character being cursorily developed and being flawed, impoverished or unsettling.

    My impression is that "sketchy" in the "inadequate" sense boomed in the late 80's, so it would seem about right for the usage moving from "sketchy information about a person" to "a person with a sketchy character".

  4. Mark said,

    March 13, 2010 @ 9:42 am

    Also, "sketchy morals" (1952 according to Google Books).

    [(myl) Interesting. The context is a review of the musical comedy Come of Age, in Billboard for 2/2/1952:

    Therein, he meets a lady twice his age and of somewhat sketchy morals, and the two fall violently in love. It is not a happy liaison. The lady puts him thru a three-ringed hell, and when she finds her hold slipping, gets fighting drunk and auctions him off to the highest bidder among her giddy fem friends. Follows contrition and recriminination, but out of it all — a reporter is far from sure just how the lad announces that he has "come of age".

    This could be the contemporary sense, but then it could also be the older one. Note that you could substitute something like "… and of somewhat uncertain morals… " or "… and of somewhat ill-defined morals…", with much the same force — as you suggested in your previous comment.

    There seem to be two possible metaphors in such cases. In both cases, the lady's morals are carelessly constructed, incomplete, lacking in substance, etc.; but one interpretation is that the carelessness and lack of focus are hers, while the other interpretation is that it's the author (or perhaps the social context) offers only a superficial facade of knowledge, behind which could be anything, but probably nothing good. ]

  5. Zwicky Arnold said,

    March 13, 2010 @ 10:20 am

    Looking around in 2004, I found plenty of examples of sketchy in these senses, plus some in the perhaps earlier senses 'under the infuence of drugs; messed up'. And some of the verb sketch 'act extremely nervous, esp. under the influence of marijuana'. And plenty of the (negatively) evaluative adjective sketch (overlapping a lot with the slang adjective w(h)ack), especially in the context "[situation or person] is so sketch". A few notes on the phonology and syntax of "whack adjectives" here.

  6. John said,

    March 13, 2010 @ 10:21 am

    I'd stress the more unsavory connotation of the word. For me, sketchy borders on "illegal, sleazy."

    I'm pretty sure we used it in Brooklyn in the '70s.

  7. John said,

    March 13, 2010 @ 10:30 am

    BTW, "scrub" should be next.

  8. Grant Barrett said,

    March 13, 2010 @ 10:39 am

    When we tackled this word origin on the radio show (in the non-thorough way that is all that is really possible in that medium) for a caller from Oregon, I went with the same basic origin story Mark gives above. We received this response from a listener, which looks like a plausible forking of the meaning, rather than an origin story, but it is intriguing, nonetheless.

    "A friend of mine who had been a crystal meth addict in the 1980's used the term in different forms relating to that drug. She said for example, a sketcher- a user; sketching- experiencing intoxication; sketchy- to describe someone who might be under influence of meth. The caller was from a major city in Oregon, which fits with these definitions because the use of crystal meth was rampant there for a time."

  9. C Thornett said,

    March 13, 2010 @ 11:11 am

    I don't think I have come across this use in the UK, but then I might just be of the wrong generation.

  10. John Lawler said,

    March 13, 2010 @ 11:23 am

    Phonosemantically, initial sk- is a two-dimensional phonestheme. I.e, it's a basic sense; 49 of the 87 sk-initial simplex words have 2-D referents (56%). Below:

    scutcheon skip 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

    Residue of 38: skungy scholar scheme skunk scowl skeet scurvy scout skeeter scut skeptic scoff scuzzy scare skald ska scarce scorn ski scotch skill skoal scad skimp scold scone skag skink scanty scamp skipper scope scandal skit scuba scant skittish school

    This means that a "2-Dimensional" sense, overlapping and consistent with the 'tentative drawing' sense of sketch, is another constituent of the aural image.

  11. Aaron Toivo said,

    March 13, 2010 @ 12:08 pm

    Mr. Lawler, how do we know that it doesn't belong in the 'residue' list instead? I seriously do not get any sort of 2-D sense from it.

    The image it conveys to me is 1. something being shadowy or poorly detailed, and thus suspect; mixed with 2. police sketches of criminals. When I describe something as sketchy, I am saying it/they bring this to mind.

    (With all due respect I think your proposed phonaestheme is pure baloney, but that's off-topic.)

  12. John Burgess said,

    March 13, 2010 @ 12:23 pm

    I don't recall exactly when I first came across the sense of the word as 'off-kilter, louche, criminal', but it was used that way by the late 60s, when I was in university.

    [(myl) If so, I'd expect to see some traces in books or movie scripts or newspaper articles. But instead, such sources seem to start showing the usage in the mid-1990s. Any ideas where to look for earlier indications?]

    I definitely recall seeing it widely used in the British popular press in the mid-90s.

  13. Jean-Sébastien Girard said,

    March 13, 2010 @ 12:48 pm

    "I'd expect to see some traces in books or movie scripts or newspaper articles."

    If you're going through Google Books there is a dearth of material (compared to what,s available outside that range, that is) between ca. 1930 to ~1990 that can actually be read, as I found a while ago. I suspect some arcane aspect of copyright law is responsible.

  14. Craig said,

    March 13, 2010 @ 1:04 pm

    sketchy-schmetchy; what about "till I got to Virginia"? The use of "till" rather than "until" or " 'til" seems to be rising in popularity. Another is "alot" rather than "a lot". Do we not care at all anymore?

    [(myl) Yes, it's been all downhill since the OED's first citation for till prep., conj., adv.:

    a800 Inscription, Ruthwell Cross, Dumfries in O.E.T. 126 HweÞræ Þer fusæ fearran kwomu æÞÞilæ til anum.

    There was a brief movement in the direction of rectitude following the invention of "until" around 1200, but progress has been erratic.

    Seriously, "till" is older than "until", and has been a part of standard English as long as the English language has existed. And what we care about, first and foremost, is the truth.]

  15. Eric said,

    March 13, 2010 @ 1:32 pm

    The intensifiered Bay Area variant, of course, being hella sketch.

  16. Richard said,

    March 13, 2010 @ 1:52 pm

    I've noticed, especially in the college crowd, that the sense meaning "untrustworthy, unsafe" is so prevalent that you get a blank stare if you mention a sketchy idea or argument.

  17. mgh said,

    March 13, 2010 @ 1:56 pm

    I have personal email going back to 1995, and "sketchy" shows up beginning in April 1997 and ending summer 1998. (I graduated college in 1997.)

    I know I was using it in 1996 because I recall, when trying to sublet a room in an apartment from another student, that one of us used "sketchy" in an early conversation and we later referred back to it as a sort of shibboleth indicating we would get along. I was in college in the northeast and the sublet was in southern california.

    This is consistent with the other suggestions that it was gaining use nationally (or at least coastally) in the mid-1990s, but was not yet that widespread, at least among the college crowd I was in.

  18. john riemann soong said,

    March 13, 2010 @ 2:16 pm

    craig: sometimes we just forget "till" was derived from "until".

    [(myl) That's lucky, since it's the other way around. Till as a preposition and conjunction existed in Old English; und from ON "up to, as far as" was added in Middle English. Or so says the OED.]

    it's purely unconscious. for me I don't perceive "a lot" as compounded into one word though.

    "I've noticed, especially in the college crowd, that the sense meaning "untrustworthy, unsafe" is so prevalent that you get a blank stare if you mention a sketchy idea or argument."

    To me a sketchy argument is less of an incomplete argument than perhaps actually a potentially rhetorically effective argument with questionable logic. Mark Antony's argument in Julius Caesar, though well-outlined, is "sketchy" for the type of rhetoric it uses.

  19. Mark F. said,

    March 13, 2010 @ 2:42 pm

    Well, these don't antedate the earliest things so far, but they provide some more data. Searching Google Books for "sketchy situation" (with quotes), I got the following two hits from 1980. I'm just going to paste in the whole snippets because the first is independently amusing. (Note the category label.)

    United States. Congress. House. Committee on Merchant Marine and Fisheries. Subcommittee on Fisheries and Wildlife Conservation and the Environment – Juvenile Fiction – 1980 – 1063 pages:

    … if you are getting 70 percent of what you ask, that is not really a sketchy situation, is it? Mr. Fullerton. That is fine, unless you are going to tell …

    But the metadata for this hit is, um, kind of sketchy (as you point out). And we get a nearly-useless "snippet view". So why should we believe the alleged date of publication? In any case, we can't see enough of the context to determine the meaning — maybe the issue is just how complete or comprehensive an offer/contract/solution is…]

    United States. Congress. House. Committee on Banking, Finance, and Urban Affairs. Subcommittee on Housing and Community Development. Task Force on Rental Housing, – 1980 – 1072 pages

    …And even though it is kind of a sketchy situation, it is what they will allow for the guy coming in, the owner. What kind of person that can be — you really …

  20. Lazar said,

    March 13, 2010 @ 3:00 pm

    @Craig and John Riemann Soong: You're both mistaken. Till is not derived from until, and it is not properly spelled 'til. From

    Till and until are both old in the language and are interchangeable as both prepositions and conjunctions: It rained till (or until) nearly midnight. The savannah remained brown and lifeless until (or till) the rains began. Till is not a shortened form of until and is not spelled 'till. 'Til is usually considered a spelling error, though widely used in advertising: Open 'til ten.

  21. john riemann soong said,

    March 13, 2010 @ 3:59 pm

    oh that's a nice redemption then. unconsciously it always felt like a separate word

  22. axl said,

    March 13, 2010 @ 4:10 pm

    I was barely a teenager in 1990, and never remember a time when "sketchy" seemed a new or foreign term. The word "sketch", though, meaning the same, did strike me as new [e.g. "That guy was super sketch"]. I assumed (unreflectively) this was the inspiration for Gretchen Weiner's faux-trendy neologism "fetch" ("it's British") in _Mean Girls_.

  23. Mr Punch said,

    March 13, 2010 @ 4:24 pm

    My acquaintance with the "new" sense of "sketchy" dates from the early '90s via my children, then in their early teens. As for "alot," I see that a lot, mostly (entirely?) in online comments. Different population, or different medium?

  24. Neil T said,

    March 13, 2010 @ 4:33 pm

    It has definitely made it to the UK. But I first heard it in the new sense about five years ago…

  25. Kate G said,

    March 13, 2010 @ 4:57 pm

    I have no moment of figuring-out when I hear sketchy as an adjective, but the teens in my life did at first surprise me with "sketch out" as a verb – it's really sketching me out, etc. Seems to me "scared for no good reason" or "uncomfortable".

  26. mollymooly said,

    March 13, 2010 @ 4:57 pm

    I'm Irish. Never heard of it.

    Google News Archives; Los Angeles Times – Sep 21, 1978
    SKETCHY: When a skateboarder comes "down" out of control

  27. mollymooly said,

    March 13, 2010 @ 5:00 pm

    Re til/until: I think people should write 'to because it's clearly an abbreviation of unto.

  28. Mark P said,

    March 13, 2010 @ 5:17 pm

    My acquaintance with the "new" sense of "sketchy" dates from today. I had never heard or seen it used like that until I read this post. But then I grew up a while ago.

  29. Chargone said,

    March 13, 2010 @ 5:37 pm

    humm. I have a vague sensation of having encountered Sketchy in this context before… but i really don't remember where/when, and in New Zealand, in my experience, the word 'Dodgy' fills the same role.

    Person of dubious character, item of dubious providence, building of dubious construction, repair of dubious quality…. basically, anything where you could say 'of dubious x', you can just say the thing is dodgy and the rest is implied. it doesn't necessarily mean that the thing is dangerous, but that you should certainly be very careful, because if you put a foot wrong it has a high probability of becoming so.

    not that any of that helps identify when 'sketchy' showed up…

  30. Spectre-7 said,

    March 13, 2010 @ 6:32 pm

    'Til is usually considered a spelling error, though widely used in advertising: Open 'til ten.

    A quick search through reveals a number of book titles that use 'til, in addition to a major network television show. This all makes me question whether it's still commonly considered a spelling error.

    All of my examples seem to be from the past ten years, and I can't help but wonder whether it's the product of the erroneous belief that until is the only proper form. If you really thought till didn't exist as a separate word, then 'til could potentially look like the proper choice for a more colloquial shortened version.

    Or something like that…

  31. Wimbrel said,

    March 13, 2010 @ 8:15 pm

    An established collocation like "a sketchy past" may be the place where the established sense changed into the one that's apparently innovative. In this instance, "sketchy" clearly means "lacking detail," but can be readily reanalyzed as "suspicious," based on the context where it's likely to occur.

  32. Vireya said,

    March 13, 2010 @ 8:20 pm

    I've never heard sketchy used this way in Australia.

  33. Skullturf Q. Beavispants said,

    March 13, 2010 @ 11:53 pm

    I'm from British Columbia and was born in 1974, and I never realized how unfamiliar this usage is for some people. I always assumed it had been around for decades.

  34. Will said,

    March 14, 2010 @ 2:36 am

    I was in college around the turn of the millennium (east coast, DC area), and sketchy was widely used among all the students (myself included). And like a commenter above pointed out, to most of us it had only a single meaning (the new one). I still have trouble "seeing" an older sense when reading it (for instance, in the quotes above) because the word has such a basic singular meaning to me, and it clouds my ability to interpret the other senses well.

    I recall hearing sketch around the same time, in predicate form ("That building is sketch"), but not as a plain adjective (*"That sketch building").

  35. Breffni said,

    March 14, 2010 @ 4:07 am

    I recall what I'm pretty sure was a Far Side cartoon that plays on the two senses of sketchy. I can't find it online and don't have the books to hand, but it features a couple of stick men among the usual Far Side-style characters, and the caption is something like "Just then a couple of real sketchy characters walked in". That was my first encounter with the "shady" sense (and I wondered if Larson had made a mistake), and I've only come across it a handful of times since then. The Far Side was published up to and including 1994 according to Wikipedia.

  36. Richie Sevrinsky said,

    March 14, 2010 @ 4:45 am

    As an American expat in a largely English-speaking community in Israel, I have also found that most of my non-American neighbors (British, South Aftrican, etc.) all use "dodgy" in this connotation.

  37. Silas said,

    March 14, 2010 @ 4:50 am

    I learned it when I started college in 2005. It's used pretty heavily at Stanford, often preceding "grad student". Other common variants I've heard include "sketch" (as Will said, rarely if ever a plain adjective) and "sketchball" (a sketchy person, roughly the same meaning as "sleazeball").

  38. Jongseong Park said,

    March 14, 2010 @ 7:35 am

    I also never used "sketchy" in this context until I went to university in the US (I had also lived in the US when I was younger, but probably was too young to add this to my vocabulary). At university, I discovered that my use of the word "dodgy" was new to the American students, who quickly determined that it was equivalent to their "sketchy", and we started using each other's words for fun.

  39. Mark Steward said,

    March 14, 2010 @ 9:11 am

    Breffni: I remember seeing that too, but it also provides a good collocation for the usage.

    From Slang U. by Pamela Munro (1991):

    sketched bad, weird
    sketchy unsure, unstable, confused; jittery; strange, hairy
    | Something really sketchy happened last Halloween

    It looks like this sense was still a bit confused at that point, so I'd imagine it's a recent development.

  40. Woodsie said,

    March 14, 2010 @ 11:01 am

    In1999 in the midwest, "sketchy" was the most-current synonym of "shady".

    An example I'll never forget is when a co-worker of mine commented on a couple of red-eyed teenage dishwashers returning from their evening break out behind our restaurant. "Ah, here come Sketchbook and Shadetree."

    Still funny!

  41. Will said,

    March 14, 2010 @ 11:28 am

    @Mark Stward: Don't you mean "It looks like this sense was still a bit sketchy at that point"?

  42. Jerry Friedman said,

    March 14, 2010 @ 11:49 am

    I'm an American who teaches at a community college, and I don't remember ever hearing this one "in the wild", though maybe I reversed the evolution and heard "sleazy" as "incomplete and therefore worthless".

  43. joshua walker said,

    March 14, 2010 @ 1:28 pm

    Adding to what Silas posted above, "Sketchy" was used all the time at Stanford when I started there in 2002, mostly referring to "Sketchy grad students." It became something of a stock character in campus jokes.

  44. Bob said,

    March 14, 2010 @ 10:09 pm

    I started using the word sketchy all the time while in college at San Diego State University in 1993… I grew so fond of the word that I even registered the domain in 1996, I still have a site and it's definitely sketchy. I'm also looking for people to write so get in touch if you are interested.

  45. Nathan Myers said,

    March 15, 2010 @ 2:05 am

    I have spent most of the last 30 years near the U.S. west coast. This new sense of "sketchy" is entirely foreign to my ears.

  46. Babayaga said,

    March 15, 2010 @ 2:33 am

    I can attest to using it routinely as a college student in Santa Cruz CA in the late 1980's. I'm not sure whether I was familiar with that use in high school (in the SF Bay Area) but I think not.

  47. Elizabeth said,

    March 15, 2010 @ 5:18 am

    I've never heard sketchy used this way in New Zealand!

  48. Graeme said,

    March 15, 2010 @ 8:36 am

    Another Australian for whom these new usages are sketchy, at best.

    Perhaps not surprising the word would morph to survive. Not a lot of sketching on paper these days; it's mostly graphics on screens. Or does 'sketch' as a verb retain some role in computerised image production?

  49. Carl Anderson said,

    March 15, 2010 @ 9:24 am

    Huh, for the vaguely combined or general senses captured in the string "questionable, iffy, untrustworthy, unsafe, poor quality, creepy, deprecated" I would tend to use the word "dodgy", though that may be a Britishism.

  50. Nick Lamb said,

    March 15, 2010 @ 10:57 am

    Graeme, yes, people still sketch. The computer is a very powerful yet forgiving tool, but even if everyone used one instead of paper (and they don't) many artists still find it helps to have a rough outline (ie, a sketch) of the piece before they begin work in earnest.

  51. Jim said,

    March 15, 2010 @ 12:14 pm

    I'm Irish, born in 1985. I remember 'sketchy' being used as a descriptor of dodgy areas while I was in school. For some reason, I have the impression that it is of Irish origin.

    Much more common though, was the use of 'to keep sketch', meaning 'to watch out for some authority figure [while we are doing something forbidden]' (either against some rules, or illegal). This has prevalent usage in Irish schools, and is well understood by the whole population.

  52. Ella said,

    March 15, 2010 @ 2:35 pm

    I, too, had no idea this was somehow innovative. (born 1979, grew up in Canada & UK). Quick informal survey of my boyfriend who did all his growing up in the UK & is the same age as me produces the same reaction. I do, however, remember when I first encountered the abbreviation 'sketch' as in "like, that guy is super sketch! He totally sketches me out!" and it was in 1988 in Southern Ontario. I think it may havemexperienced a period of trendiness due to the 'valley girl' craze which cemented it in the canon.

  53. Mike Albaugh said,

    March 15, 2010 @ 3:03 pm

    I note that the Arduino (A small computer often used in, e.g. kinetic art) crowd uses "sketch" (noun) for what most of us call a computer program.

    Not sure why. Maybe it sounds more arty. But it's definitely not pejorative, and doesn't seem to imply "incomplete" or "rough" either. Perhaps they are attempting to imply "You can do this quickly, it's not all that hard".

  54. Jesse Hochstadt said,

    March 15, 2010 @ 5:28 pm

    I have been familiar with phrases like "sketchy character" and "sketchy neighborhood" for a long time, although I can't pinpoint when I learned them. Like Mark in the early comments, I associate the former phrase with the genre of crime writing. A text search on Amazon shows an old book called "Sketchy characters of gold fields life," which is indexed at the National Library of Australia ( as having been published in Sydney in 1900. One cannot be sure of the meaning there, but it at least seems potentially consistent with other meanings discussed here. One would expect to find some sketchy/dodgy characters in and around Australian gold fields. (I suspect it is not an alternative way of saying "character sketches.")

    Searching Google for "sketchy neighborhood" gives 67,100 hits, which is suggestive of widespread use going back a ways, but again doesn't prove anything.

    The use of "sketch" as an adjective is completely unfamiliar to me, but seems like the kind of modification one sees in teenage slang.

  55. blahedo said,

    March 15, 2010 @ 10:54 pm

    I heard the word "sketchy" in the "shady" sense at least as early as 1997-98 while at grad school (at Brown, in Providence RI); most specifically from a student who hailed from the Bay Area, although it was in somewhat wide use. I may have heard it before then, because it didn't strike me as particularly new (though the meaning is usually also clear from context), although I'm fairly sure *I* didn't start using it until then. However, when I moved back to the Midwest (west-central IL) in 2003, I definitely started getting a lot of funny looks and questions about the word in this sense, including from college-age students, so it was not yet universal at that point.

  56. Moacir said,

    March 16, 2010 @ 2:00 am

    Adding another early 1990s data point, I can attest to hearing the term for the first time no later than early 1994, since I was a senior in HS at the time, and one of my friends had a sign on his dormroom door that read "Sketchy," and we understood this to mean that our friend was, as the Brits would say, "dodgy."

    It also felt like a newish term, but no one ever had to explain it to me.

    There was also the expression "sketched out," to mean "feel uncomfortable by the dodginess of the scene" or something similar. As in, "I was sketched out by those dudes doing coke in the bedroom."

  57. Mark said,

    March 16, 2010 @ 6:33 am

    Jim: the idea of sketchy being Irish is appealing, but I can't find anything on it.

    I'm pretty sure the adjective sketch is American in origin, and is probably driven by familiar words like kvetch or scooch, or possibly even "hot sketch".

  58. Bloix said,

    March 16, 2010 @ 6:47 pm

    See the phrase "paranoid, delusional, and sketched out" here:

    Fits Grant Barrett's account of use by meth heads – maybe it originated among drug users.

  59. Mark said,

    March 18, 2010 @ 9:34 am

    Bloix: but that's from 2006 at the earliest.

  60. Phil said,

    March 18, 2010 @ 10:31 am

    "Sketchy" was new to me in the mid-90s. In addition to describing people and events as sketchy, we called the corner liquor store "SketchyMart".

  61. Alexa S. said,

    March 18, 2010 @ 6:29 pm

    Maybe of interest: I'm a college student from northern Virginia, where I've recently (last 2-3 years) noticed use of 'sketchy' to mean 'sexually suggestive'. As in, " 'Horatio Hornblower' sounds really sketchy", or "The way those two were dancing was getting pretty sketchy." It's sometimes shortened to 'sketch', as noted.

  62. smably said,

    March 29, 2010 @ 1:26 am

    I just saw this term used in a New York Times article about a law prohibiting more than three unrelated people from living in the same apartment:

    Jerilyn Perine, a former city housing commissioner, said the roommates rule came about to address another concern. It dates to the 1950s, she said, when the city balked at the number of sketchy single-room-occupancy buildings and their often equally sketchy inhabitants, and wanted boarding house brownstones to be converted back to family homes.

    I'm pretty sure it's being used to mean questionable.

    It felt strange to see this in print. I've heard it used in conversation many times, but to me it's always felt like a colloquialism, not the sort of thing that the Times would use in a news story.

  63. How NOT to teach writing in schools | The Cport said,

    October 19, 2012 @ 2:21 pm

    […] Origins of "Sketchy": In the presidential debate this week, President Obama referred to Mitt Romney's economic plan as "sketchy," which was then a trending word on Twitter. Mark Liberman wrote on Language Log about the word and a search for the origin of its most common modern usage—a reference to something questionable or unsafe. He used Google's n-gram search, and it's first book appearance in this context came in 1994. Let's see what the new, improved n-gram has to say. […]

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