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The Surprisingly Complex Etymology of 'Skittles'

In defense of a long, low-scoring Scrabble word that wasn't always a proper noun.

by Ben Richmond
Jul 1 2013, 4:58pm
Photo via Wikimedia Commons

There’s nothing more ready-at-hand than your language, so it’s easy to forget that we live in the decadent ruins of the great English language. Every day we rebuild it, using hand-me down words, corralling meaning from general to specific and vice versa. Consider, if you will, skittles.

After Starburst, Skittles are the second most popular chewy candy, and the most popular candy among teenagers and children. I can neither read nor write the word without picturing its script in white across the red bag.

So naturally it was a bit of a surprise to come across the phrase “beer and skittles” in a dictionary of Victorian slang. While the pairing didn’t seem new—a mixture of the two named “Skittlebräu” once came to Homer Simpson in a dream—it didn’t seem to belong in a book from 1909 on the Public Domain Review either.

And yet the phrase “beer and skittles” lurks through our language like a clichéd specter. For whatever reason, even though the Passing English of the Victorian era defines the pair as “a synonym for pleasure,” we usually hear it in the negative: life isn’t all “beer and skittles,” people say, a sentiment so obvious that few would question it and wonder why it was “beer and skittles” and not, say, “hookers and blow” or “skydiving and eating raw cookie dough.” Life just isn’t easily limited to any two things, why pair these two, and for that matter what is being paired?

Well obviously when Charles Dickens uses the phrase in The Pickwick Papers in 1837, he’s not talking about tasting the rainbow. In 19th century England, skittles was a variant of bowling, one version of which became the most popular pub game of its day.

Detail of photo via Flickr nikoretro

The word and game is even older. It’s hard to find an origin for a game as ancient and variable as “knocking pins down,” which was found as far back as Ancient Egypt. The word “skittles” entered English in the 1630s, possibly riding over with the Scandinavians, or possibly coming from the Old English “sceoten,” meaning, “to shoot.” The tabletop version that was the “Big Buck Hunter” of the pubs along the Thames might have shown up with Dutch sailors from a game they played on their moored barges, but also could have been an adaptation of the old English game of knocking down pins with chunks of sheep.

Riding the coat tails of colonialism and cricket, English speakers as far as Pakistan and Australia will still use it as a verb to describe getting batsmen out in quick succession.

As the Word Detective points out, it’s weird that the phrase “beer and skittles” caught on as slang in America ever, since the game was never as popular here as it was in England. If Washington Irving is to be believed, we were more into nine-pins early on, and the rules for alley bowling were finalized in America in the late 19th century. It's sort of our patriotic duty to use words without knowing what they mean.

Skittles became associated with casual playing, meaning also a casual game of chess, without the clock. Brits waiting at a chess tournament to play their next match can go to the skittles room to pass the time.

Skittles candy debuted in England in 1974, a name evoking fun and casual pleasure, until, at least in America, the brand surpassed its origins. You might think that’s where it would end, but even colorful candy takes on shades of meaning.

After Trayvon Martin was shot with Skittles in hand, the candy, along with hooded sweatshirts, came to symbolize the dangers and injustice of racial profiling. According to The New York Times, Skittles sales spiked as people demonstrated solidarity with Martin’s family, which lead almost immediately to backlash as people wondered what supporting Skittles had to do with justice anyway. Skittle’s parent company, Wrigley, publicly expressed sympathy with Martin’s family, but was likely happy to see the association fade.

Such is the liquid nature of language--a word chosen to invoke bliss, coming to English on Viking ships and Dutch mercenary vessels, settled on the most innocent of candies, only for meaning to briefly detour to tragedy.

Photo of "beer and skittles" via Hexidecimal
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