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.

21 comments on this post.
  1. 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).

  2. 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!

  3. 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.

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  5. 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?

  6. 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.

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  9. Dot McQueen:

    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.


  10. 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.

  11. 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.

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  13. 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.

  14. 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

  15. elle j:

    I’m a born and raised Albertan and all of these sayings are part of my upbringing

  16. 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.

  17. James Nickerson:

    I think the correct word is “skift”

  18. David Russell Watson:

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

    See .

  19. 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!

  20. 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.

  21. Katharine:

    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!!!

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