When you "get the skinny" on something, you're using a phrase that can be traced back to a Scottish poet and World War II soldiers.
Valerie wrote, “I just heard ‘get the skinny’ said by a news anchor, [and it] got me wondering about the origins. Have you covered that one?”
I hadn’t yet, but now, I have the skinny—the news, the gossip, or the real truth—on the phrase "get the skinny."
'The Skinny' Is an American Saying
This seems to be a purely American saying, and it’s on the rise. A search for the phrase in Google books shows a steep and steady increase starting around 1975. But the search turned up no use in British English at all, which I almost never see.
'The Skinny' Was Military Slang
The Oxford English Dictionary calls the phrase slang and also says it originated in the U.S. and is still chiefly used in the U.S.
The first example is from a 1938 autobiography by Richard Hallett, "a writer who has bummed his way around the world." It doesn’t appear to be related to the armed forces in any way, but two other sources (Online Etymology Dictionary and "The Dictionary of American Slang") say the phrase started as World War II military slang, and they speculate it might have evolved from the idea of the naked truth, which means the plain truth or the truth told without concealment.
The World Wide Words website also has an excellent article on the topic. It includes a couple of examples of people quoted in the 1940s and '50s saying it’s military slang, but the examples don’t seem to tie it back to the “naked truth” theory.
An alternative theory that I found on The Phrase Finder message board is that during World War II, Marines received their military orders on especially thin paper and these missives came to be called "the skinny," as in, "What’s the skinny on promotions," but I couldn’t find anything to back up that theory, and I’m more inclined to believe the “naked truth” theory, which I’ve seen from multiple credible sources.
'The Skinny' Might Come from 'the Naked Truth'
That phrase, the “naked truth,” first shows up in the Rolls of Parliament in 1436 and may have originally gotten some traction after it appeared in a well-known poem from 1585 titled “The Cherry & the Slae.” It was written by Captain Alexander Moungomery (also sometimes published as “Montgomerie”) who was part of an influential group of poets who gathered around King James VI of Scotland. In the line, he wrote he “truely told the naked trueth.”
The most likely scenario seems to be that phrases such as “Get the skinny,” “Here’s the skinny,” or “What’s the skinny?” were being used here and there before World War II, then became popular among members of the United States armed forces, and then for some reason started appearing in print more and more in the late 1970s, and have been increasing ever since. It might have originated as a slangy reference to the naked truth, but nobody knows for sure.
'Skinny' Used to Have Other Meanings
Finally, I came across some interesting obsolete meanings for the word "skinny" as I was reading the Oxford English Dictionary entry. To be skinny used to mean to be attractive, as in having beautiful skin, and it also meant “related to or affecting the skin,” so doctors might have talked about “skinny disorders” when referring to skin problems.
Thanks for the question, Valerie!
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Mignon Fogarty is Grammar Girl and the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips. Check out her New York Times best-seller, “Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing.”