As promised, after last week’s review of my favourite books of 2019, we’re back to unusual words. This week’s word is skinflint which is a great way of saying that somebody is tight, canny, or mean with their money. Scrooge was a world-class skinflint, until he met the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future.
Skinflint came to my notice last week when I was reading “War and Peace” written by Leo Tolstoy in the 1800s, one of the books on my 501 Books to Read Before you Die list and actually one I read as a teen but wanted to re-read. It took me nearly two months, but it was worth it (just avoid the epilogue which is tedious). Anyhow, in it a soldier characters says “a German knows how to skin a flint, as the proverb says” and it made me wonder if Tolstoy had introduced the word to English, perhaps via a Russian proverb.
I’ve been unable to source the Russian proverb (it’s possible Tolstoy invented it, or it was short-lived soldier slang) but I did find a similar expression in French – tondre un oeuf (shave an egg) with thanks to WordHistories.net, in the early 1600s, so clearly this phrase has cousins in other European languages.
However skinflint definitely existed as an English word before Tolstoy’s time. It dates back to the 1600s and flay-flint was also used with the same sense. In the 1700s you might call a miser a nipcheese which I rather like as everybody in my house gets very fussy if their favourite cheese is nibbled without permission.
An early use of skinflint in print was the 1656 poem called “The Legend of Captain Jones” about one of the first English settlers at Jamestown, Virginia in North America which had the line –
“Jones was one would Skinne a Flint, and eat him when he h’had done”
Flint (top) and steel (below)
It’s still unclear to me how, or why, you would skin a flint. Flints are stones used most often in the past as either arrowheads, basic knives or to generate a spark (when struck by steel) to light a fire. My own flint and steel are pictured here and yes, there’s a bit of a knack to getting that spark but it’s possible.
I did find some suggestions that the skinflint would split a flint stone (easy enough to do) in order to get a second for free. Typically only one stone would be needed per person so that’s pointless penny-pinching of the sort Scrooge would approve.
Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,
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