Something’s up in the underground.
Dear Word Detective: What is the origin of “skullduggery”? Is it related to grave robbing as in the 1800s for medical use of cadavers? Or is it much older? — Lyn Kin.
Ah, yes, body-snatching. The practice was so widespread in the 18th century that a device called the “mortsafe” was developed, a sort of iron cage that surrounded the coffin and prevented abduction of the occupant. Body-snatchers, who sold their product to medical schools, were known as “resurrectionists,” and some, such as the infamous team of William Burke and William Hare, were not above employing murder when the natural supply ran low.
Those readers who made it past that cheery paragraph may have noticed that I let the spelling “skullduggery” (to which my spell-checker objects) stand in the question, because the combination of “skull” and “duggery” (which sounds like an archaic form of “digging”) certainly puts one in mind of grave-robbing. But the original and more common spelling is “skulduggery,” with just one “l,” and the term actually has no connection to either skulls or digging.
“Skulduggery” today means “underhanded dealings,” “trickery” or “clandestine machinations.” The term is apparently an American invention, first appearing in print (as far as we know) in 1867 (“From Minnesota had been imported the mysterious term ‘scull-duggery’, used to signify political or other trickery.”), but since that quotation is an explanation of the term, we can assume it had been in use for some time before that. Today “sculduggery” is most often associated with cloak-and-dagger intelligence agencies such as the CIA, but freelancers and domestic political operatives have made their own splashes on occasion with “skulduggery” (“Watergate was such a sensational piece of skulduggery,” The Times (London), 1980).
While “skulduggery” may be a US coinage, its roots appear to lie in Scotland. The 18th century Scots term “sculduddery” meant “indecency” or “breach of chastity,” defined at the time as meaning specifically “fornication or adultery.” While “sculduddery” may at one time have been a serious legal term in Scotland, most written instances of the term treat it as jocular slang.
In any case, just how “skulduddery” in Scotland became “skulduggery” in the US is a mystery, although the terms do share obvious overtones of secrecy and impropriety. We also have no idea of what the roots of “sculduddery” might be. On the bright side, however, we do have “skulduggery,” a great word for those times when something underhanded is afoot.