• Paul Anthony Jones

Skimmington

(n.) an unpopular person

A skimmington is an unpopular person, and a skimmington ride is, as we explained on Twitter, “an old country ceremony in which effigies of an unpopular person are carried through town and burnt in derision or protest.”

First recorded in England in the early 1600s, these skimmington processions were often called upon when it emerged that one or both partners in a marriage had been unfaithful. The unfaithful spouse (or spouses) in question would ultimately be hoisted aloft by a raucous crowd, and paraded through the streets in an attempt to ridicule them. Pots and pans would be clashed together, embarrassing effigies and placards would be carried, and with any luck the hapless victim would be shamed into never committing adultery again.

Quite where the name skimmington comes from is unclear.

As the OED points out, an early account of one of these “rides” made mention to a woman who was involved holding her “skimming ladle”—which made her husband the skimmington. If that’s the case, then that final –ton has probably been added on to the skimming ladle to make it sound more like a person’s name (the same process that gave us words like simpleton, and its less well-known cousin, idleton).

Whatever its origins, these skimmington rides fell out of fashion in the 1800s, by which time the word had morphed into a more general term for a quarrel or raucous argument. Whether it’s time to bring them back or not is another question.


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