origin of ‘skinflint’

skinflint - The Legend of Captain Jones (1656) - frontispiece

frontispiece to The Legend of Captain Jones (London, 1656)

 

 

The noun skinflint, which denotes a niggardly person, is first recorded in A New Dictionary of the Terms Ancient and Modern of the Canting Crew (London, 1699), by “B. E. Gent.”:

Skin-flint, a griping, sharping, close-fisted Fellow.

It is from the hyperbolical phrase to skin a flint, denoting excessive meanness or the willingness to go to extreme lengths to save or gain something.

This is comparable to the French phrase tondre un œuf (to shave an egg), which used to be tondre sur un œuf (to shave on an egg); Randle Cotgrave defined it in A Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues (1611):

Tondre sur vn oeuf. To accuse truth of falsehood, charge vertue with vice, find a fault where there is none; also, to make a commoditie of any thing, how bare soeuer it be; whence, Ils trouveront à tondre sur vn oeuf (= They will find [something] to shave on an egg).

The phrase to skin a flint is first recorded in one of the poems introducing the 1656 edition (London) of The Legend of Captain Jones. Relating His adventure to Sea: His first landing, and strange Combat with a mighty Bear. His furious Battel with his six and thirty men, against the Army of eleven Kings, with their overthrow and deaths. His relieving of Kemper Castle. His strange and admirable Sea-fight with six huge Gallies of Spain, and nine thousand Souldiers. His taking Prisoner, and hard Usage. Lastly, His setting at Liberty by the Kings command, and return to England (first published in London in 1631, this work satirises the legend of Captain John Smith, one of the first English settlers at Jamestown, Virginia; it is attributed to the Welsh clergyman David Lloyd (1597-1663)):

’Mongst all those Blustering sirs that I have read
(Whose greatest wonder is that they are dead)
There’s not any Knights, nor bold Atchivers Name,
So much as Jones’s in the Booke of Fame:
They much of Greeces Alexander bragg,
Hee’d put ten Alexanders in a Bag:
Eleven fierce Kings, backt with two thousand Louts,
Jones with a Ragged Troope beats all to Clouts.
But sure it was a Conquest by Compact,
For he could never be accus’d of fact:
And yet no story a Romancer sings,
That ere exploited more stupendious things;
Quixot a winged Gyant once did kill,
That’s but a flying tale, beleiv’t who will:
This were but petty hardship, Jones was one
Would Skinne a Flint, and eat him when h’had done.

Another hyperbolical phrase, to skin a louse, appeared in Travels of four years and a half in the United States of America; during 1798, 1799, 1800, 1801, and 1802 (London, 1803), by the English author John Davis (1774-1854):

You never gave me the taste of a dram since I first know’d you. Worse luck to me; you New Jersey Men are close shavers; I believe you would skin a louse.

On 9th February 1819, William Faux, “an English farmer”, recorded a variant in his diary, published in Memorable days in America: Being a journal of a tour to the United States, principally undertaken to ascertain, by positive evidence, the condition and probable prospects of British emigrants (London, 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 paragraph is from The Weekly Courier and Journal (Natchez, Mississippi) of 20th August 1840:

The author of a letter in the Free Trader of Tuesday is indecent to the last degree, and respectable as he is proclaimed to be, we think he is a little too cautious of public scorn and contempt to permit his name to be known. A man who is so base as to abuse the best circles of our city, and impugn the motives and patriotism of the ladies who attended the celebration on Thursday last, is mean enough to steal chickens from a hospital or skin a flea for its tallow.

skin a flea - Weekly Courier (Natchez, Mississippi) - 20 August 1840

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