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.

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