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.

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