skelp, skelt

Skelp that skelp! Skelp it, I say, and skelt – do not skelt it helter-skelter, or I’ll skelp you!

Uh… help?

If you’re scratching scallops into your scalp over these ones, I can’t blame you. One of these words has not been in use since Chaucer’s time, and the other one is archaic and mainly northern English and Scottish. But they have some promise and value, so I’m blowing the dust off them and setting them here in front of you for your diligent and hasty study.

Do diligent and hasty seem at odds? Haste makes waste, after all; hasty efforts are often scattered to the wind. This is one of the odd and appealing things about skelt. The Oxford English Dictionary gives it two senses: intransitively, it means ‘hasten; be diligent’; transitively it means ‘spread or scatter hurriedly’. There is no known etymology to help sort this all out and tie this all together, and no one seems to have used the word in modern times. But if we think of the intransitive as meaning ‘throw oneself into something’, it makes sense, and the transitive can be in the line of ‘throw from oneself’, which will tie in well enough. It also fits with the sound-symbolic effect of /skɛlt/. Is it related to helter-skelter? Quite possibly.

Skelp also seems to have sound-symbolic or directly imitative origins. It can be a noun or a verb, and as a noun it has another sense as well. The main sense is ‘slap, smack’ – verb or noun – and in most recent use the verb seems to have narrowed to ‘spank’, i.e., it’s specified the location of the slap as the breeches. The other noun sense is (to quote Oxford) “A thin narrow plate or flat strip of iron or steel, which by twisting and welding is converted into the barrel of a gun.” It shows up in the early 1800s and probably comes from the main sense. That is, you skelp the steel (with hammers or whatever) into a skelp.

Slapping steel? Well, pounding it. It’s not the same kind of skill as to sculpt, and you’re not sharpening a scalpel, but it does need to be reasonably precise. Which is perhaps suggested by the /ɛ/ vowel, not quite as high as the /ɪ/ in whip (and slip) but higher and tighter than the /æ/ in slap, to say nothing of the /ɑ/ in slop. We don’t seem to use /ɛ/ as much now for this kind of impact, but clearly in centuries past it had a more direct appeal. (And the “short” vowels haven’t changed since then, whereas the “long” ones have.) Perhaps our sense of this sound has changed scope.

Well, it’s not too late to put it back in use – although it does risk being misheard as scalp. I think skelt has more hope, especially the transitive sense. Maybe if we skelt it here and there it will get picked up.

3 responses to “skelp, skelt

  1. My mum used to use this word in humorous threats when we were small. No Scottish blood origins in our family, but there are quite a few Scots remnants floating around in New Zealand vernacular – or were, for they’re fading.

  2. “Skelp” – not heard since Chaucer’s time? I think the good people of the island of Ireland – particularly west and south might beg to differ! It is not unusual to hear of someone threatening to give someone a skelp, even intensified as a good skelp. You can hear the word frequently in the context of the popular sport of hurling – one can either give the ball (sliotar) a good skelp or even treat an opponent to one (which will bring down the ire of the referee and the partisans of the offended player. In the west of Ireland the word is often pronounced “shkelp” (you might shtop a shkelp with a shtick if you have one handy).
    As I have your attention (if I have your attention) I am at a loss to understand the origin of the word “pegging” which was in my childhood (40s/50s) used as a synonym for “pelting” – as in “pegging stones” (“peggin’ shtones”. Any idea?
    Best wishes

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