What Is a ‘Skeleton Crew’?

A lot of companies that are still operating are operating with a skeleton crew these days.

Mignon Fogarty
2-minute read
Episode #764
The Quick And Dirty

When you're working with the bare minimum of people necessary to keep a project going, you're on a skeleton crew.

I was supposed to have an interview this week with Roy Peter Clark of the Poynter Institute about his new book called “Murder Your Darlings” that has all sorts of inspirational writing advice, but we couldn’t make it work because his company is operating on a skeleton crew, and he couldn’t get help recording. And then he said, “You should do a segment about the phrase ‘skeleton crew.’” So this one is for you, Roy! We’ll do that interview in the future.

The idea of a 'skeleton' crew started in the military

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, people started using the word “skeleton” to describe the bare bones level of staffing needed to operate in the late 1700s, and it looks like it started in a military context. The earliest examples are about skeleton battalions, skeleton regiments, skeleton squads, and skeleton forces.

It wasn’t until the 1920s that you start seeing people use the term in a business sense, and that’s also when the use of the term “skeleton crew” starts really taking off, at least according to a Google Ngram chart, which shows how often words or phrases appear in published books.

It also looks like the phrase “skeleton crew” is about twice as popular in American English as it is in British English.

Google Ngram showing skeleton crew is more common in American English than British English

You may have guessed from my reference to a “bare bones level of staffing” that “skeleton” refers to something that is bare. The concept of a skeleton crew seems to come from the older meaning of a skeleton as a bare outline of something.

The word “skeleton” itself comes from a similar sounding Greek word, “skellein,”  which means “to dry up or  to make dry.”

If your office or business is operating with a skeleton crew, you are working with a small number of people, the minimum number of people you need to get by, and you might not be able to do everything you want, like set up recording equipment for a podcast interview.

Examples of 'skeleton crew'

The vessel they were guiding into the harbor was manned by a skeleton crew of just eighteen sailors and three captives, all of them severely malnourished. … Their captain was dead, as were the officers, the boatswains, and the pilots; in fact, nearly the entire crew had perished.

Laurence Bergreen (Magellan: Over the Edge of the World)

Craig Newmark simply started e-mailing his friends about local events in 1995; almost twenty-two years later, network effects have kept Craigslist a dominant player in online classifieds despite operating with a skeleton crew and making seemingly no changes to the website design during that entire period!

Reid Hoffman (Blitzscaling: The Lightning-Fast Path to Building Massively Valuable Companies)

For power plant operators, pandemic plans typically involve restricting site access to essential personnel, seating control center staffers farther apart from each other and being prepared to scale down to a skeleton crew if enough people get sick.

Sammy Roth, Los Angeles Times. How power companies are keeping your lights on during the pandemic, March 19, 2020.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

About the Author

Mignon Fogarty

Mignon Fogarty is the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips and the author of seven books on language, including the New York Times bestseller "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing." She is an inductee in the Podcasting Hall of Fame, and the show is a five-time winner of Best Education Podcast in the Podcast Awards. She has appeared as a guest expert on the Oprah Winfrey Show and the Today Show. Her popular LinkedIn Learning courses help people write better to communicate better.