There’s one thing being careful with your money but being excessively parsimonious for the sake of it is another. We have all met them and when we become exasperated with their meanness, we call them a skinflint.
The term has a long pedigree and probably originates from the argot of thieves, developed to prevent or at least frustrate those who wanted to listen into their conversations. It is defined, helpfully for us, in that wonderful testament to the secret expressions of England’s demi-monde, A New Dictionary of the Terms Ancient and Modern of the Canting Crew, compiled by the almost anonymous B.E in 1699, although he did own up to being a gentleman. Skin-flint, he wrote, is “a griping, sharping, close-fisted Fellow.”
The idea is simple enough and takes the form of an exaggerated image of parsimony. Someone is so tight that he would even try to remove the used layer of a flint stone so that he could use it anew. The use of skinning a flint as a metaphor was certainly in currency in the 17th century and not just among the lower orders of society. A Welsh clergyman, David Lloyd, wrote a satirical poem about the exploits of Captain John Smith – we met him last week when we were trying to get a word in edgeways – in 1631; “this were but petty hardship. Jones was one/ would Skinne a Flint, and eat him when h’had done.”
Flints were used as a means of getting a spark to fire the gunpowder in an old rifle. After a number of firings, the flint would wear out. The majority of riflemen would simply replace the flint but some in a display of parsimony under duress would simply get out their knife and sharpen their flint once more. This practice has led at least one etymologist to surmise that it is the origin of our term. I suspect, though, it is merely a prosaic example of the behaviour of a skinflint rather than the origin of the term, not least because its usage in relation to this practice cannot be attested or dated.
The French had a wonderful, and slightly earlier, phrase for describing an act of meanness, tondre sur un oeuf, which became slightly abbreviated to tondre un oeuf. The, presumably, metaphorical practice of shaving an egg was brought to the attention of the English by Randle Cotgrave in his 1611 Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues. There he gave one of the definitions of the phrase as “to make a commoditie of any thing, how bare souer it be.” Perhaps the English just replaced an egg with a flint.
The concept of what to most people would seem a futile exercise as a metaphor for meanness took hold and generated a few, even more picturesque variants. The English author, John Davis, wrote about his adventures in the United States at the turn of the 19th century in Travels of four years and a half in the United States of America, published in 1803. He clearly wasn’t impressed, particularly when he encountered a mean lot in New Jersey; “you New Jersey Men are close shavers; I believe you would skin a louse.”
A variant was to skin a flea which cropped up in William Faux’s Memorable days in America, published in 1823; “Coals are few and our captain stingy, being one of those Yankees (says our first mate) who, in the Southern States, are said to skin a flea for the sake of its hide or tallow.” This phrase cropped up again in The Weekly Courier and Journal of Natchez in Mississippi in August 1840; “is mean enough to steal chickens from a hospital or skin a flea for its tallow.”
Alas, these phrases seem to have dropped out of use but they have encouraged me, at least, to be more imaginative in the terms I use to describe the next skinflint I encounter.