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.

skul08.pngThose 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.

14 comments on this post.
  1. Jan Sammer:

    Given the origin of the word in Minnesota with its large Swedish immigrant population and the original spelling with a single l, my hunch would be that its origin should be traced to the Swedish word “skuld” meaning debt (pl. “skulder”). Originally it probably referred to bilking others with false promises to pay.

  2. Jacobite lady:

    Fantastic. Learned a good bit from that and that from someone with a fascination for Scottish history

  3. Peter:

    Further to Jan Sammer’s comment, I too feel something germanic might lie in the dark behind the Scottish word. ‘skuld’ is close to modern German for ‘fault’ / ‘blame’. And that would fit with naughtiness, wouldn’t it?

  4. Don:

    Modern Swedish contains Skuld meaning guilt/debt/fault

  5. Blanche Quizno:

    The German “schuldig”, meaning “guilty”, has a similar structure – the “sch” can be pronounced as “sh” or as “sk”, and of course someone engaging in skulduggery is guilty…

  6. Julia:

    How about the German word Schuldige which means “guilty person” ?

  7. Agedwirehead:

    So is skulduggery really of Old Norse origin? Maybe it described the many invasions…

  8. Debra:

    and the Swedish adjective for guilty is skyldig – even closer to skulduggery.

  9. Greg:

    Just wondering if perhaps the meaning is not a bit older
    and refers to the miss use of an ore to steer a boat or ship as in sculling , unseen miss directing of the boat.

  10. kerry burns:

    The “skuld” blame element is very persuasive. But what about the “duggery” bit?

  11. Dan:

    Duggar in Swedish means to sprinkle or garnish. Perhaps it means garnish with debt/false promises etc…

  12. Rich Cooper:

    I just finished the Oxford edition of ‘Eirik the Red’ and other Icelandic sagas. I’ll note that an evil soceress in the Sagas is named Sculd. She is responsible for several under-handed acts. Could this be the source of skulduggery?

  13. Lou:

    Also the term “Scullery (maid)” is still used today as to the lowest servant in a kitchen, who’s duties are washing dishes, pots, pans, floors, or even the Master’s boots and unmentionables, which may have led to the word “Sculdudderie;” which sounds very similar to Skulduggery and may have mistakenly been used in a humorous sense.

  14. Matthew:

    Guilty in Swedish, Norwegian and Danish is “skyldig”

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