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shameless pleading






Just a taste.

Dear Word Detective:  What is a “skiff” of snow?  What is derivation of the word “skiff”? — James S. Bow.

That’s a good question.  Since we’re on the subject, what ever became of snow?  I know it snows in places like Michigan and upstate New York, but we live in Central Ohio, and it almost never really snows here.  Of course, I define “really” in terms of my childhood in Connecticut, where it would snow three or four feet at a time and you could build totally awesome snow forts that would last for weeks.  Here anything more than four inches is considered a big deal, and I haven’t been able to build a decent fort in years.

As a matter of fact, we seem to be enjoying, if that’s the word, a “skiff” of snow even as I write this.*  It’s snowing, but so lightly that you have to look twice to be sure.  The end result will be about an eighth of an inch of snow, just enough to make the snow and ice already on the ground fresh, fuzzy and lethally slippery.  So a “skiff” of snow is a light flurry or cover of snow, but you can also have “skiffs,” light showers, of rain, or even a “skiff” of light wind.

The first thing to occur to most people on hearing this use of “skiff” is whether the snow-shower sort of “skiff” might somehow be related to “skiff” meaning a small, light boat of the sort often carried by larger ships for various purposes (ferrying passengers to shore, etc.).  After all, the nautical “skiff” has the same relation in size to the larger ship as a light “skiff” of snow would bear to a real snowstorm.  Alas, metaphor fans, such is not the case.  The nautical “skiff” is not related to the snow “skiff.”  The boat “skiff,” which first appeared in English in the late 16th century, comes from the French “esquif,” which in turn was derived from the Old High German “scif,” meaning “ship,” which came from the same ancient Germanic root that gave us the word “ship” itself.  A slight detour through Dutch at one point also gave us the word “skipper” for the captain of a ship.

The “snow” kind of “skiff” comes from an entirely different source.  The noun “skiff” is drawn from the Scots verb “to skiff,” meaning “to move lightly and quickly, barely touching the surface” (“Neat she was … As she came skiffing o’er the dewy green,” 1725) or “to glide or skim” (“Rude storms assail the mountain’s brow That lightly skiff the vale below,” 1807).  Just where this verb “to skiff” came from is a mystery, but it seems to be related to the verb “to scuff” in the sense of “to brush against something lightly.” “Scuff” is at least partly onomatopoeic or “echoic” in origin, formed in imitation of the sound of the action.


* This column was originally published in January 2009, when you would have been able to read it if you were a subscriber.

31 comments to Skiff

  • L.Owens

    Growing up in a Midwest family with Origins of german and welch a skiff of snow was used as a light dusting (1″ OR LESS).

  • KayeM

    I was pleased to find your article and also the comment left by L.Owens. I’m from eastern Canada and my Maine born husband thought I was crazy – he’d never heard the term “skiff” except as type of small boat.
    “It must be a Canadian thing” was his response. A little internet research showed me the word’s Scottish origins and since the Scots have made their way to many parts of the world including the U.S. it’s obviously not just a “Canadianism”. (Hubby is low on the Scottish blood himself so I will excuse his lack of knowledge). Many thanks!

  • waxxod

    If you take a swipe at a football and barely touch it, you’d say you’d skiffed it, at least in the part of East Scotland where I grew up.

  • […] native Californian eyes are looking out on a gray world with a skiff of snow on the ground from a few lazy flakes drifting from the sky, adding to the thick heavy […]

  • A. Junius

    Does anyone know the saying that goes “If if were a skiff, we’d be paddling on the river,” or something similar to this?

  • Jeff W.

    The way I heard it was, “If if were a skiff, we could hop in and sail away.” That goes back to roughly 40 years ago, so I have no idea where I saw or heard it.

  • […] had to turn to the Word Detective for an answer. “a ‘skiff’ of snow is a light flurry or cover of snow, but you can […]

  • […] the first snowfall of the year. It’s just a skiff mind you, and it’s already melting. Time to get back to work on the Boneyard shawl… […]

  • I’m from Edinburgh in the East Coast of Scotland and talk about a skifter of snow meaning a very light covering. My husband, who is also from Edinburgh, thinks I made it up as he’s never heard the word!!

    And BTW, we have a skifter of snow this morning for the first time this year.


  • B. Graham

    YES! I just used the term “skiff” of snow, wondered about its origin, looked it up, and found only the boat definition. I grew up in Iowa and the term was used by everyone. I am glad I found this posting as I was starting to wonder if it was one of those words I had misheard over the years and it really didn’t exist.

  • K. Wright

    Vindicated at last! My family always said a “skiff” of snow. We are from Ontario. Like B. Graham’s post above, I began to wonder if I made the word up as a rarely have heard it used other than by me. Thanks for the research.

  • […] Logan A skiff of snow idled on my car this morning. Categories: Photographs Tagged: hillsboro, show Comment […]

  • Duane Dowden

    “Skiff” has been used as a universally understood word since I was very young boy in the 1950’s Upper Midwest – and certainly before my time. It has always been implied as a small amount of snow that mostly blew around and left very little accumulation. It seems a “skiff” had more to do with a small accumulation then behavior.
    My small town South Dakota upbringing was inspired with colorful words and phrases. “Pop” was always the word used for a bottle of flavored soda, like Dr. Pepper. “Ufdah” pronounced oof dah can mean many different things – for me it’s a way of expressing astonishment or I use it in place of a swear word!! “For cripe sake” – probably a safer way of saying for Christ Sake. The list goes on and on. We should thank the midwest for colorful language.

  • Suzanne gillman

    Thank you! I used this word to describe yesterday’s snowfall. Husband thought i was mad. My family and our local weathermen always refer to a skiff of snow in Southern Alberta, Canada

  • Beth Nace

    I am a native Oregonian and I have always used skiff for a light dusting of snow. A youngster today questioned my word, so I wanted to look it up and make sure it wasn’t something my family made up. Happy to see other comments.

  • James Nickerson

    I think the correct word is “skift”

  • David Russell Watson

    The word used for a light snow, rain, or wind is “skift”, not “skiff”, according to Merriam-Webster online.

    See .

  • Ann Adams

    My late husband was from NE Tennessee, which was settled by a lot of Scotish/Irish/English, so a lot of their expressions seem to have originated there. The first I ever heard “skiff” was from him, and living in SW Ohio, I seldom hear it used here. I do use it, but people sometimes question what it means. Glad to know it’s a good term! I like it better than “dusting” of snow, and it reminds me of him!

  • Ed

    I grew up in SE Ohio and we referred to a light snow as either a “skiff” or as a “skift” of snow. Both expressions were used. SE Ohio also was settled by a lot of Scots/Irish/English, so I guess the Scottish origin of the word makes sense.

  • My mom was Low German heritage and raised in N. Missouri. She always used the term “skiff of snow”. I, like many above, was beginning to fell I’d imagined it, so I asked her and she affirmed that, in her mind, it meant a light dusting of very dry snow, the kind that drifts across the Interstate like sand. She “thought” it was spelled with only one “f” thus: “skif”. But she may have picked that up from her mom, who learned reading and writing in S. Germany. Seems it’s universal, but so few children paid attention that it’s nearly died out.
    Let’s revive it!
    And thanks for this post!!!

  • Grew up in Wisconsin, and was back on a visit when it snowed for the first time. I wrote about a “skiff of snow”, and none of my friends from Utah and Seattle (where I’d lived) knew what I was talking about … but my Cheesehead friends understood!
    Too bad this dock doesn’t have a skiff next to it! Then we could discuss having a skiff on a skiff!

  • Geoff

    I just went to check how much snow was on the car windshield here in Ontario, Canada. So I texted the boss, “barely a skiff.” There’s snow on the windshield but not enough to justify pulling out the brush. I guess to me a snow-free windshield after one wipe of the wipers = barely a skiff. A bit more snow on the windshield and if the side windows had snow on them that needed one quick swipe of the brush, well sir, I reckon that would be a skiff of snow in my books and quite likely a complete bastardization of the original Scottish meaning :)

  • Jim

    It looks like skift became skiff in the early 1900s:

  • Lori

    In central Washington where it has four seasons, we’d say, “Let’s skiff it across the water [with a boat],” or “Let’s skiff it across the snow [with a plastic sled],” when we wanted to carry things to and fro. I used this word in Northern California, and people didn’t know what I was saying. My understanding of the verb, “skiff,” is to make something glide over a surface. To me, “skiff” is onomatopoeic with “skip” when considering the action of “skipping rocks.”

    • Lori

      The root word, “ski,” (gliding over a surface), seems to be the root of “skiff” and “skip.” Thanks for having this discussion!

  • Joey

    I grew up on the Cumberland Plateau of Tennessee which is populated with Scots-Irish people. We used the term “skiff of snow” too

  • Jim

    Everybody posting is aware that “skiff of snow” means a light coating of snow. The core issue is whether you agree that it came from the name for a boat and related to nautical words like skipper. The alternative is that it came from a Scottish term meaning “light touch”.

  • Daniel Murphy

    I grew up in Edinburgh Scotland. My brother and I used to skiff stones together… later other Scottish friends absolutely used the verb with the same meaning. It’s when you take a flattish stone and bounce it on the top of the water. A good ‘skiffer’ might bounce 6, 7 or 8 times. Fits with the comment by Lori (March 7th).

  • Erin Ruble

    I grew up in south central Montana and we always used the term for a light dusting of snow – never for rain. I live in Vermont now and the 10 or so people in my writer’s group had never heard of it (including one transplant from Colorado). I’d had no idea until then it was regional – I must have been confusing people with it for years! (BTW, I also pronounce coyote with two syllables, not three.)

  • Edward Bear

    So, “skiffing” is basically “skipping”?

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