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Ideas | Mark Peters

The real scoop on ‘skinny’

A series of votes are expected as Senate Republicans work on a limited repeal of the Affordable Care Act, or “skinny repeal” plan.
A series of votes are expected as Senate Republicans work on a limited repeal of the Affordable Care Act, or “skinny repeal” plan. EPA/MICHAEL REYNOLDS

We’re all trying to get skinnier in America — even with our legislation.

The word of the week is “skinny,” as in the potential skinny repeal of Obamacare. The Palm Beach Post’s blog makes a distinction between a full and partial repeal: “Senate defeats ‘clean repeal’ as GOP eyes ‘skinny’ health care bill.” The Atlantic also used these terms, describing “Skinny, Clean, and Everything In Between.” Rolling Stone might win the cleverest headline of the week: “The Skinny on the GOP’s Last Resort on Health Care: ‘Skinny Repeal.’” As we wait to see if skinny repeal passes in the Senate, it’s worth a look at the history of a word whose history is far from skin-deep.

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As Margot Sanger-Katz writes in The New York Times, the Republicans have proposed, “. . . a simple bill that eliminates three of Obamacare’s least popular provisions. The plan, which has been nicknamed ‘skinny repeal,’ would eliminate the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate, the employer mandate and a tax on medical devices, at least for a few years.” The skinniness is in contrast to a full repeal of Obamacare.

By email, Wall Street Journal language columnist Ben Zimmer said, “‘Skinny’ has been used in congressional parlance for a few decades now, generally for bills that are not weighed down by extraneous amendments or provisions, or are otherwise trimmed down from ‘fatter’ alternatives.” The term goes back at least as far as a 1982 use in Dow Jones: “[Senate Republican Leader Howard] Baker said there were ‘two or three things wrong’ with the House-passed version of the skinny bill — it did not rescind about $1 billion in spending included in the earlier ‘fat’ bill Reagan vetoed.” Zimmer notes that such bills are also called “lean,” “slim,” and “slimmed down.”

The lexical history of “skinny” began, unsurprisingly, with skin. Around 1400, the term “glorious skinny” applied to skin that was especially attractive. Since the 1600s, “skinny” has had several meanings related to skin, as well as the contemporary sense of being physically thin. Shakespeare used that sense in Macbeth, describing “skinnie lips.” By the early 1800s, the term had extended further, referring to anything thin or narrow. In his 1924 novel “The Thin Man,” Dashiell Hammett describes a relatable condition: “So comes the winter and the bank-roll’s getting skinny.”

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“Skinny” has also had sub-meanings related to tight clothes, low-calorie foods, and stingy behavior. A “skinny worker,” as recorded in Green’s Dictionary of Slang, is a “sneak thief.” Paul McFedries’ Word Spy describes a “skinny street” as, “A street built narrower than usual to enhance traffic safety and encourage pedestrianism.” One of the most popular — if despised — terms in recent years is “skinny jeans,” which are lambasted almost as much as the hipsters who wear them. In Ireland, to be “thrilled skinny” is to be very excited. Skinny-dipping is probably as old as the oceans, but the term is only recorded since the 1940s.

In the endless churn of language change, “skinny” — derived from a noun, “skin” — has ended up a noun of its own. A “skinny” can be a thin person, a meager example, a coffee made with skim milk, or some type of news, especially juicy gossip or rare information. That meaning has been around since at least the 1930s and appeared in Richard Hallet’s 1938 book “The Rolling World”: “Had she really given me the skinny of an actual legend from the archives of her race, or was she wafting me the native poetry of her soul?”

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The word choice in “skinny repeal” is entirely sensible. “Skinny” has a range of meanings that are generally non-disparaging, skinny jeans aside. That makes it the perfect euphemism for legislative trimming or gutting, depending on your perspective. In fashion and politics, thin is always in.


Mark Peters is the Ideas language writer.