Washboard road

James A. Landau JJJRLandau at AOL.COM
Fri Apr 23 12:51:34 UTC 2004

In a message dated Thu, 22 Apr 2004 15:20:52 -0400,  a puzzled Wilson Gray
<hwgray at EARTHLINK.NET> asks:

>  ?"Catskinner" = operator of a Caterpillar or similar brand of
>  roadgrader, e.g. Kotatsu, based on traditional "muleskinner" = driver
>  of a multiple-mule team, once used for a more-or-less similar purpose
>  in road construction?

Yes, "catskinner" is a portmanteau of "Caterpillar tractor" + "muleskinner".
It probably refers specifically to operators of bulldozers and caterpillar
tractors made by the Caterpillar Corporation and competitors, not to
construction equipment operators in general.

I don't recall when or where I first heard the term, but I remember using it
with the wife of a heavy equipment operator some 30 years ago.  A Google
search turns up over 1200 entries for "catskinner" but only a few dozen refer to
bulldozer operators.  The rest range from a ski slope somewhere to a type of
knife (e.g. www.constcon.com/Hava-Knife/knives.html ) and includes several fanfic
sites for fans of Larry Niven's "Man-Kzin Wars" science fiction universe.
Since the Kzin resemble cats (tigers, not housecats), the reference I would
guess is rather literal.

OED gives three citations for "catskin" with the meaning skin of a cat used
for fur.  There is a bowdlerized version of the folk song "Kafoozalum", of
unknown age, which includes the lines
      He had a trade which prospered well
      In skins of cats and ancient hats

"Muleskinner" is listed in the OED2 with a first citation of 1870, meaning
"N. Amer., a prairie mule driver" but I think it was used in the Civil War with
no reference to the prairies.  The "skinning" part is probably a reference to
the mule drivers' use of their whips on their mules.

          - Jim Landau

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