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Skeleton key

Warning: Key will not work if holder is being pursued by zombies.

Dear Word Detective: The term “skeleton key” has always been a puzzle to me. Some sources suggest the shape of the skeleton key is suggestive of the shape of a skeleton. I find this unpersuasive. Do you have a better explanation for this term? By the way, is the surname Skelton related in any way to “skeleton”? — Jim Brown.

Yeah, right. Two can play that game. By the way, I have my nomination for the most vexing phrase in the English language: “By the way.” It serves the same purpose as Columbo’s “Just one more thing.” You think you’re off the hook, but then, as in the Godfather, they pull you back in. So last things first: the surname Skelton (probably best known in the US through the comedian Red Skelton) has no connection to “skeleton.” According to the most credible explanation I’ve found, “Skelton” was originally the name of villages in northern England, probably drawn from the Old English “scylf,” meaning an elevated area of land (related to “shelf”), plus “tun,” a settlement. The village name eventually became a “locational” surname for people from the area.

“Skeleton key” will probably be unfamiliar to anyone under about 40, but when I was a kid it was a term spoken with near-reverence. A skeleton key, at least in the mythology of 10-year old boys, was a key that could unlock any door (and thus often featured in low-budget horror and mystery films). There was some truth to the tale, because many houses (including the one I grew up in) had lever tumbler locks on the doors that were operated with “bitted” keys. Such “old-fashioned” keys consisted of a long stem with a sort of metal “flag” at the end into which were cut slots, leaving “bits,” or tines, in a pattern that matched the pattern of tumblers in the lock. If the bits didn’t match the tumblers, the key didn’t work. A “skeleton key,” however, usually had very wide spaces and very narrow bits, so with a little wiggling, a lock could often be opened with a generic “skeleton” key. Though “skeleton keys” in this “bitted key” sense are long obsolete, the term is still used for “passkeys” for more advanced locks, and even the administrative electronic card keys used in hotels, etc.

“Skeleton” as a noun means, of course, the bony framework or structure of an animal’s body, and comes from the Greek “skeleton soma,” meaning “dried-up body” (“skeleton” being from “skellein,” to dry up”). Since the 17th century, “skeleton” has also been used to mean the basic, unadorned framework of something (“The bare bones, the very Skeleton of a Monarchie.” 1647), as well as a remnant of something, such as an army unit, too small to be effective (“Having on board part of the skeleton of the 16th regiment of foot, … consisting of 10 officers, and 62 rank and file.” 1812).

“Skeleton key” employs that “basic framework” sense of the term, and is notable in that it’s one of only a few times when something being a “skeleton” is advantageous. It’s the very simplicity of the skeleton key with its sparse “bits” that, with luck and a bit of jiggling, unlocks the door to the haunted house.

Up and at ‘em

I’ll be Bach.

Dear Word Detective: So, I have long heard the phrase “Up and Adam” which never made sense to me. I was looking into it recently because I was re-watching a Simpsons episode where a Schwarzenegger-like actor kept saying “Up and at them” because he couldn’t get the line right. However, this phrase makes a great deal more sense to me then the former. Googling it reveals it is likely “Up and at ‘em.” I was curious if this is the correct phrase and would like to hear about how it came about and how often and how it is incorrectly stated. — Devin.

Good question, and thanks for the term “Schwarzenegger-like.” It has a mordant chuckle baked into it. Speaking of baking, I happened to be sitting in a restaurant in the German Village area of Columbus, Ohio last summer devouring an enormous chocolate cream-puff, when who should amble past our table but Ahnold himself, complete with his retinue of bodyguards. In that one ten-second close-up I learned two new things: (a) he’s much shorter than I had thought, and (b) he’s bright orange. Like a little Teutonic traffic cone.

Thanks to all the people on the internet with nothing better to do, I can now report that the episode of the Simpsons you were watching was from 1995, called “Radioactive Man,” and centers on the making of a film of the (fictional) popular comic book of that title in Springfield. The eponymous superhero in the film is played by Ranier Wolfcastle, a parody of Schwarzenegger who appears in several Simpsons episodes. Apparently, Radioactive Man’s catchphrase is “Up and Atom!”, which makes Simpsonesque sense, but Ranier Wolfcastle, with his obsessive enunciation, insists on saying “Up and at them!” The joke seems to be aimed at people who insist that “up and at ‘em” is sub-standard English.

To begin at the beginning, the original phrase is definitely “Up and at ‘em.” (“‘Em” is a shortening of “them” dating back to the 14th century). The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) offers two citations for “up and at ‘em,” the earlier being from 1909 (“It was always the up-and-at-‘em aspect of things that appealed to him.”). There is some debate (see linguist Arnold Zwicky’s blog at over whether “Up and Adam” is a conscious joke by people familiar with the phrase or a genuine “eggcorn,” a substitution of a word or phrase based on a misunderstanding (see The Eggcorns Database at for an explanation and examples). The verdict seems to be that most people who write or say “Up and Adam” are joking and know it, but some people have made apparently sincere attempts to connect the phrase to Adam (Garden of Eden, snake, etc.) being told to get busy by God.

Two posters in the forum at the Eggcorn Database mentioned above remember being awakened by their mothers in the morning with the exhortation “Up and Adam!”, and I think I do too. I definitely remember another mock-Biblical reference from my childhood, this one at the close of day. Much of what I supposedly learned in Sunday School is a dim memory, to put it mildly. But the story in the Book of Daniel of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, the young men consigned to die in a fiery furnace by Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar (and rescued by an angel) has stuck with me. And it has stuck with me entirely because at bedtime my mother transformed their names into “Shadrach, Meshach, and To Bed We Go!”

Corking good

Case closed.

Dear Word Detective:  My mother often referred to a newly read book as “a corking good read.” Any comments on the term and its origin? — R.J.

Well, it depends. It’s difficult to know, when folks send their questions in by email, where they’re writing from, and while geographic location may seem (and usually is) largely irrelevant, it does figure in this case. If your mother is an inhabitant of, or has some close family connection to, Great Britain, no problemo. I’d say she was simply employing a mainstream colloquialism of that fair land. If, however, your family hails from the US, I suggest that you hightail it over to your mother’s house and unplug her TV. She has clearly been watching too much PBS programming, probably the powerfully hallucinogenic Downton Abbey, and is on the verge of ordering Marmite by mail. She must be stopped for her own good.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines the adjective “corking” as “unusually fine, large, or excellent; stunning.” The OED also notes that the term first appeared in print in 1895 and is “chiefly US” in usage, which strikes me as odd, since I’ve never heard anyone but a hopeless Anglophile here use the term in a non-ironic sense. They even cite a use by P.G. Wodehouse (“There’s nobody I think a more corking sportsman than Maud.” 1919) who was about as non-US as you can get. Incidentally, the citation preceding that one for “corking” in the OED does not actually contain the word “corking” (“Arthur’s approval was fortified and grew with contemplation.”1918), which is very strange. Perhaps there’s an anagram I’m missing there.

In any case, “corking” as an adjective is an outgrowth of the noun “corker,” a slang term from the early 19th century with two related, but distinct, senses. The original sense was “something that settles and puts a definite end to a discussion or argument; an irrefutable argument or fact,” much as a cork tightly seals a wine bottle (“It’s a corker. If it [a proposed law] passes we’ll have to quit.” 1889). From this usage came an extended sense of “something shocking or astonishing.” A “corker” in this sense can be either something good or something bad.

The second sense of “corker,” which arose in the late 19th century, is unambiguously positive. Meaning “a person or thing of surpassing size or excellence; a stunner” (OED), this “corker” led directly to the “corking” your mother uses to praise a book.

Incidentally, occasionally you’ll hear someone complaining about the use of “read” as a noun, usually coupled with a modifier such as “good,” “riveting,” etc., in the sense of “material to read” (“My Friend Sandy can be hugely recommended … as a pleasantly light, bright sophisticated read.” 1961). I’ve never understood exactly what the problem with this usage is supposed to be, but it  dates back to at least the mid-20th century and it has lasted because it’s useful, which is, after all, the whole point of language.