Dear Word Detective: What’s the origin of “the skinny?” I heard the expression used countless times. Yet again today in the NY Times the phrase cropped up again: “The skinny on figure modeling.” Go figure. — Sid Miller.
That’s a good question. I actually haven’t heard “the skinny” used in years, so I went looking in the New York Times for the article you mention, which turns out to be an interview with a figure model at the Arts Students League of New York. In the paragraph where that phrase occurs, she’s talking about a popular model who weighed 350 pounds, so I guess the Times writer saw the opportunity for a little pun. The Times loves little puns. To be fair, they’re not alone in heeding the siren song of “skinny” puns. Quite a few of the results for “the skinny” on Google News are stories touting “the skinny on dieting,” “the skinny on skin care,” or “the skinny on taxidermy.” I made that last one up. But I did see another story offering, in dubious taste, “the skinny on the Starbucks closings,” making a play on the whole “skinny latte” thing.
“The skinny,” of course, is slang for “the straight story,” more specifically “the inside scoop, the real story that most people don’t know.” Not surprisingly, “the skinny” is often invoked by supermarket tabloids and websites that promise to satiate the public’s apparently insatiable desire for celebrity gossip. The fact that we will probably never know what’s really up with Tom Cruise only seems to fuel their quest for “the skinny.”
Unfortunately, etymologists have their own quest when it comes to “the skinny,” the search for its origins, and so far we’ve come up empty. We do know that the word apparently first became popular in US armed services slang during World War II, but actually predates the war by at least a few years.
More important than the “when” of “the skinny” is, of course, the “why,” and there are a number of clues as to the logic behind “the skinny.” We know, for instance, that in the 1930s “the skinny” was slang for ten cents, probably drawn from the phrase “one thin dime.” In the 1920s, “the skinny” was student slang at the US Naval Academy at Annapolis, MD, for a course in physics or astronomy, but no one has ever come up with a logical explanation for that use, either. Both of these leads are probably duds for our purposes.
A more intriguing possibility, suggested a few years ago by a poster to the American Dialect Society mailing list, is that “skinny” in this sense comes from the Irish word “sceitheanna,” meaning “act of revealing or making known” (and supposedly pronounced as something close to “skinny”). It’s an interesting theory, but it may indicate just a coincidental intersection between Irish and English.
One of the simplest explanations of “the skinny,” and the one I’d bet is true, is that “skinny” in this sense simply refers to “getting down to the bare skin” (as in “skinny dipping”) of the truth, unadorned by spin, artifice or tact. So if this is the logic behind the phrase, “the skinny” is just another way of saying “the naked truth.”