Wednesday, 4 July 2012

On skelingtons

A correspondent writes to ask about a usage he has spotted in Dickens: Noah Claypole’s millingtary for military, and wonders whether there are any other such uses of ing for the vowel. He mentions a children’s use of skelington for skeleton. Are there any others?

I know about skelington: it’s definitely a regional dialect feature. Joseph Wright’s English Dialect Dictionary has examples of it across the country, from Yorkshire to Dorset. It’s spelled variously, such as skelenton and skillenton. Thomas Hardy uses the latter in Tess, for example, and there are two instances recorded in the OED, under atomy and know, and three examples in Wiktionary.

The Cockney use is the most famous one, and there are several stories about it, such as this one, from an online bio:

‘In a biology lesson we were shown a human skeleton and when asked by the mistress if anyone knew what it was called I shoved my hand up with some, later regretted, haste and stated quite clearly to the whole class that it was a ‘skellington’! The class erupted into paroxysms of giggling, much whispering behind hands, pitying glances and I went scarlet with embarrassment. I had no idea what I had said to get this reaction because I heard what people said, I didn’t judge them on how they said it. The mistress scathingly repeated what I had said and joined the pupils in mocking my accent.’

Or this poetic extract:

A muvver was barfin 'er biby one night,

The youngest of ten and a tiny young mite,

The muvver was poor and the biby was thin,

Only a skelington covered in skin.

Dickens has millingtary a second time - by the hairdresser in Master Humphry’s Clock (Chapter 5) – so it’s not just an idiosyncrasy of Claypole. And it turns up in several regional dialects too, on both sides of the Atlantic. Horatio Alger, for example, uses it in Randy of the River; so does R M Ballantyne in In the Track of the Troops. If you're searching, remember that there are spelling variations here too; the word often appears with a single l.

I can’t think offhand of other textual examples of an ing substitution for a short i. Has anyone come across them?


David L Rattigan said...

Thanks for posting my query, David.

John Cowan said...

The only person I ever heard say skelington in a live situation definitely said skelinton, and he also used the older pronunciation -in for the gerund-participle suffix -ing. So I think this form involves a reanalysis of the learned word skeleton as skel- + -in(g) + -ton.

DC said...

A correspondent from another forum sends me a further example, from Henry Fielding's Joseph Andrews: ironing for irony in the following:

“Yes Madam!” replied Mrs. Slipslop with some warmth, “Do you intend to result my passion? Is it not enough, ungrateful as you are, to make no return to all the favours I have done you: but you must treat me with ironing? Barbarous monster! how have I deserved that my passion should be resulted and treated with ironing?"

David Crosbie said...

Skelington sounds like the familiar name Wellington — which used to be even more familiar. Could this have a bearing? If not on the coining of the form, then perhaps on the survival?

The ing is meaningless, but British place names include many where historic ing was meaningful but somewhat redundant : e.g. places with -ington or -ingham. My home town of Nottingham, for instance, would still have been 'Snot's Place' without the ing. Is it possible that the extra suffix was inserted for euphony?

mollymooly said...

I'm not sure people analyse "Washington" as "wash" + "-ing" + "-ton" or "Remington" as "rem" + "-ing + "-ton".

Lots of proper names end in -ington (also -ingdon). Few words end in -@ton.

"Surbington" seems to be a genuine surname, but some Google hits look like misspellings of Surbiton.

vp said...

"Badmington" is, I believe, quite a common mis-spelling (and mispronunciation) of the game "Badminton" -- try searching for it on YouTube!. Wells identifies is as a hypercorrection for NG-dropping.

DC said...

Nice example. Yes, I agree it's a hypercorrection, which is what leads me to think that there must be many more instances, though probably few will ever be written down.

David Crosbie said...


Few words end in -@ton

I can immediately think of Bolton, Boston, Preston, Wigton, Charlton... . I bet there are hundreds more. OK, some must be based on town in the modern sense. But I bet there's a core based on an Old English tun — not all that different from an Old English ing.

DC said...

Hang on. Something went wrong with the phonetics, I think. That 'at' symbol shouldn't be there. The issue isn't about names ending in 'ton', of which there are thousands. It's words ending in 'ton' preceded by 'in', with a short vowel.

Anonymous said...

Cf also "in the garding" and "sangwiches"?

Anonymous said...

"Skelington" was the only way we said it when we were NW England street kids.

Anonymous said...

A few north England friends used to say "Bill Clington", and without an ounce of intended irony.

Adrian said...

I remember our English teacher writing "maudling" on the board with an extraneous g. I think there was some interference from the name of a famous politician.

Anonymous said...

I grew up, with many others, calling Eglinton Avenue in Toronto (apparently named after a Toronto neighbourhood and ultimately after Eglinton Castle in Scotland) "Eglington." Wikipedia tells me that it was at one time actually spelled Eglington.

Steve Hewitt said...

Just to set you off on another trail... here in Nottingham the locals say 'hospickle' instead of hospital.
just one of many local idiosyncrasies I guess.