View site in Scots

Scots Language Centre Centre for the Scots Leid


SKELF noun a splinter


The Scots have many different words for splinters. The Dictionary of the Scots Language  records many, and a number of them begin with ‘s’ as in: spail, sheave, sclinder, skink and skelb, plus many more. There are, however, exceptions such as: cootle and flog. 


Skelf is one of the more versatile ‘splinters’ as in the following example from the Memoirs of his own life by Sir James Melville from around 1610:


“The King Hendre 2 being hurt in the head with the skelv of a spair … at the triumphall justin [jousting] of his dochters mariage”


It seems that the wedding celebrations of our ancestors could result in more than just a hangover.


Our more modern meaning of skelf being a small fragment of wood embedded in the skin makes a comparatively late appearance in the Dictionary of the Scots Language and is from a 1947 radio programme, perhaps recalled by some readers, called the McFlannels written by H W Pryde:


“He had a skelf in his finger”


Of course people are still getting skelfs (never skelves) as shown in the following late twentieth-century example from Christopher Brookmyre’s Quite Ugly One Morning published in 1996:


“…and as its exposed floorboards were not of the trendy polished variety, he figured he would be picking skelfs out of his bare feet all afternoon”.


A skelf can also be a small insignificant or very thin person as illustrated by Chris Dolan in his Poor Angels from 1995:


“As if any respectable American employer would have taken on a wee skelf of a lassie with no qualifications to her name…”


which implies that the poor lassie was both insignificant and skinny.


The origin is probably from Dutch ‘schelf’ a flake or scale.


Scots Word of the Week is written by Pauline Cairns Speitel of Scottish Language Dictionaries 9 Coates Crescent, Edinburgh EH3 7AL (0131) 220 1294,

First published 19th September 2017.