Dear Word Detective: My love of language and crossword puzzles started with my grandfather. As an English major with a Latin minor my interest grew. My two children have always gotten the answer, “Look it up” when asking questions about word meanings and they have developed the habit of trying to confound me with a word they have discovered. The latest question is the origin of the word “skirt” as in “to skirt an issue.” I found nothing in your archives and I hope you will have better luck. — Marsha Orson.
Me too. Incidentally, I should probably explain that the archives to which you refer are available absolutely free at the Word Detective website (www.word-detective.com). There you’ll find more than a thousand back columns, helpfully indexed in something very close to alphabetical order. I go there myself from time to time, and I’m always surprised at how smart I used to be. Seriously, I don’t remember writing half of that stuff.
“Skirt” is an interesting word with some interesting connections to other words. The root of the English noun “skirt” is the Old Norse word “skyrta,” which is not very surprising, given that the Viking invasions of Britain that began in the 8th century left behind all sorts of words rooted in Old Norse. What is a bit surprising is that the Old Norse “skyrta” doesn’t mean “skirt.” It means “shirt,” and, if you go a bit further back in history, you’ll find that the Germanic root that produced the Norse “skyrta” (which became our English “skirt”) also produced the English word “shirt.” In other words, “skirt” and “shirt” are basically the same word, except that “skirt” was filtered through Old Norse before it entered English, and “shirt” wasn’t.
But wait, there’s more. The Germanic root (“sker”) that eventually produced “skirt” and “shirt” meant “cut,” and also eventually produced our English adjective “short” (as well as “score,” “share,” “shear” and several other English words). The original sense of both “shirt” and “skirt” was, in fact, simply “short garment.” The question, obviously, is how a “shirt” came to mean a loose tunic worn above the waist, primarily by men, and “skirt” came to mean the part of a woman’s dress below the waist (or today usually a separate garment). The answer probably lies in the fact that the modern Icelandic word “skyrta” means a long shirt that hangs well below the waist, so perhaps the Viking “skyrta” was even longer.
In the centuries since “skirt” appeared in English around 1300, it has acquired a variety of figurative meanings, the most important, for our purposes, being “the border, rim, boundary or outlying part” of anything, including a town or village. This sense comes by analogy to the loose bottom edge of a skirt, and we most often encounter it in the modern English term “outskirts,” meaning the outlying parts of a town or city.
As a verb, “to skirt” (which first appeared around 1600) reflected this “boundary” sense from the beginning. In its earliest uses, “to skirt” meant “to border or form a border around something: (“Those vast and trackless forests that skirted the settlements,” 1820). But “to skirt” was also used to mean “to travel through the outskirts of a place,” and specifically to pass around, rather than directly through, a town, village or other place (“Then I set off up the valley, skirting along one side of it,” 1869). It is this sense of “skirt,” with the figurative meaning of “evade or dodge,” that we use when we speak of a politician “skirting” sensitive issues in a press conference, for instance.