Early "skibbies" (1918), "skivvies" (1920)

Jonathan Lighter wuxxmupp2000 at GMAIL.COM
Mon Oct 17 15:16:07 UTC 2011

Good finds, Doug.

1918 _Afloat and Ashore_ (June 19) 3: Sailors Make Lingo...Skivies -- Underwear.

1920 _Idaho Yarn_  [USS Idaho]  (Dec. 10) 62: The following
suggestions are offered for our readers in the matter of that present
for "my sailor boy."  Six sky-hooks for sidecleaners....One suit of
barbed-wire "skivvies."

(Both cites were sent to me many years ago by the late Col. Albert F.
Moe, USMC.)

Damon Runyon's column of Dec. 16, 1941, discussed the California term
"skibby" for Japanese, noting that many people pronounced it "skivvy,"
and that no one seemed to know its origin. Runyon does not mention
the term for underwear, which seems to have become generally known
only during WW2.

The 1918 _Dialect Notes_ report on "skibby" asserts that it was
originally a term for a Japanese prostitute. That makes it fairly
certain that the etymon is "sukebe(i)," 'lechery; lecherous;
lascivious; dirty-minded; 'horny'."

English-Japanese military pidgin has "skivvy(-skivvy)" (fornication),
"skivvy girl" (an Asian prostitute), "skivvy-honcho" (a "ladies' man"
in every possible nuance, app. including "pimp," though only Asian
"ladies" are implied), "skivvy house" (a brothel), and "skivvy paper"
(rice paper, esp. a rice-paper prophylactic).

Any connection with "skivvies" 'underwear' seems fanciful, though not
impossible, particularly since "skivvies" alone tends to mean drawers
rather than a shirt.

Of the lesser-known terms cited, only "skivvy paper" seems to appear
in print (1937, innocuously) before the 1950s or '60s, but that's
hardly surprising.

The only other SWAG that I can venture is that the "underwear" sense
comes from an Asian language other than Japanese - Chinese and Tagalog
being theoretically the most likely.

But it is an especially desperate SWAG.


On Sun, Oct 16, 2011 at 11:21 PM, Douglas G. Wilson <douglas at nb.net> wrote:
> ---------------------- Information from the mail header -----------------------
> Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
> Poster:       "Douglas G. Wilson" <douglas at NB.NET>
> Subject:      Early "skibbies" (1918), "skivvies" (1920)
> -------------------------------------------------------------------------------
> [from GenealogyBank]
> ----------
> _Aberdeen [SD] Weekly News_, 25 July 1918: p. 6:
> [US sailors surprised by a German submarine]
> <<Fight in Underwear / "It was rather a comical sight to see us. Only
> those that were on watch were dressed. I was there with only a pair of
> skibbies and a pair of shoes on. Others had on a hat and shoes and
> underwear. / ....">>
> [Apparently "skibbies" = "skivvies", = "US Navy underwear".]
> ----------
> _Kansas City Times_ (edition of _Kansas City Star_), 16 March 1920: p. 15:
> [Article about new men's fashions]
> EXISTENCE. / New Pink or Light Blue Suits Just the Thing for Easter, and
> as for Pajamas, They're Utterly Adorable. / ... Old Squire Fashion,
> silent partner of the well known dame of that name, is on his way back
> from Paris with a lot of pretty things to make us boys look and feel our
> handsomest in the Easter parade. / .... / The 1920 issue of men's spring
> skivvies are very delicate and clingy in texture, soothing in tint, and
> somewhat Ritz-Carlton in price, being made of silk in Fauntleroy pink,
> light blue and orange-ade yellow ....>>
> [Here "skivvies" is not restricted to the Navy ... but I don't think
> it's an entirely serious article.]
> ----------
> _Macon [GA] Daily Telegraph_, 2 April 1920: p. 3:
> [On 1 April, a woman dressed as a man attempts to enlist in the Navy,
> but flees when told to disrobe for physical exam]
> <<"Now come in here and shell off," commanded "Mutt" Brewer, the
> recruiting officer .... / "Do what?" was the surprised reply. / "Shuck
> off your duds from gadgets to skivvies, bub; strip, let's see the color
> of your skin," explained the examining officer.>>
> [I guess the word "gadgets" may refer to jewelry or miscellaneous
> accessories. This word seems to have been popular in naval circles. The
> "a" in this word is indistinct in the reproduced page but I can't read
> it as anything else reasonable.]
> ----------
> I don't know the etymology of "skivvies"/"skibbies". I have the same old
> candidates: (1) "Skibby" = "Jap[anese]", likely < Japanese "sukebe[i]" =
> "lecher[ous]" (said to have originally referred to Japanese prostitutes
> on the American west coast, ca. 1910) (but what is Japanese or lewd
> about naval underwear?); (2) "skivvy" (= "slavey") = "female domestic
> servant" (of unknown origin itself AFAIK) (but what is servant-like
> about naval underwear?). Anybody have any new information or notions?
> -- Doug Wilson
> ------------------------------------------------------------
> The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

"If the truth is half as bad as I think it is, you can't handle the truth."

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