Scottish word of the week: Skulduggery

Burke and Hare indulging in some skulduggery. Picture: TSPL
Burke and Hare indulging in some skulduggery. Picture: TSPL
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THOUGH the infamous partnership of Burke and Hare most definitely engaged in skulduggery. The word itself had nothing to do with their means of employment, which usually involved body snatching or grave robbing. Instead, it would have been used to describe their despicable actions in procuring those bodies. This usually involved employing murder when their natural supply of bodies ran low.

Definition: Noun. 1. Unscrupulous, deceptive behavior 2. A device used to trick

Alternative Spelling: skulduggery, scullduggery, sculduggery

In fact, the origins of the word have more than a ironic hint of skulduggery about them. Although the combination of skull and duggery allude to the act of perhaps digging up corpses, the word itself finds its roots in Scotland and the word ‘sculdudrie’.

This is an old Scottish word that refers to an indecent act, usually sexual and almost certainly was used to describe adultery.

It originated in the 18th century and it is thought it may even have at one time been a serious legal term, though there is very little written evidence that this is the case.

The word eventually reappeared in 1867 in Minnesota, where it had been corrupted and altered to refer to underhand or devious tactics, turning up in print in Beyond the Mississippi by Albert D Richardson: “From Minnesota had been imported the mysterious term ‘scull-duggery’, used to signify political or other trickery.”. The term has become popular in media and political circles and was most famously used by the Times in 1980 when referencing watergate - “Watergate was such a sensational piece of skulduggery,” - a perfect example of

political skulduggery.

How the word switched sides of the Atlantic is unknown, though it is not inconceivable that it came upon the lips of of the Scots immigrants aboard the many ships that sailed to America in those times and was perhaps corrupted by the ears of those immigrants from other nations who misunderstood the Scottish accent.

Nowadays, the word appears in Children’s literature in the series of books ‘Skulduggery Pleasant’ and as various movie titles but perhaps most famously in Tony Blair’s emotionally-charged farewell speech, in which he defended the arena of politics: “If it is on occasions the place of low skulduggery, it is more often the place for the pursuit of noble causes.”


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