skelf n. a thin fragment, a flake; a splinter, a sharp fragment of wood, etc.
Skelf (not to be confused with skelf, a shelf) has been recorded in Scots sources since the early seventeenth century and was probably borrowed from Dutch schelf, a flake or splinter of wood. The first known Scottish quotation occurs in the memoirs of Scottish diplomat, Sir James Melville, who describes a battle where soldiers are injured by "skelves of stanes".
In modern Scots, a skelf is more often a wooden splinter in the skin, as in Christopher Brookmyre's 1996 novel, Quite Early One Morning:
"This living room didn't have any kind of carpet to its name, 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".
Skelf is also used to describe persons of the wee, thin, shilpit variety, as in George Friel's 1964 novel, The Boy Who Wanted Peace:
"That this hulk of womanhood should be the old block of a skelf like Noddy made Mr Daunders think of the mountain that gave birth to a mouse".
But, as demonstrated by David and Goliath, wee skelfs are not necessarily devoid of powers or talents. In 2001, an article in the Herald described the scene at the Harlem Opera House when "a skelf of a 16-year-old", the then undiscovered Ella Fitzgerald, took to the stage.
Specific uses of the word have been noted in forestry, where a skelf could refer to a wooden wedge used in the process of felling trees, and the Scottish National Dictionary notes that the word was also used of a thin flagstone slab in Caithness in 1970. Derivatives also abound, including "skelvie", found for example in a late nineteenth-century Shetland source: "da last snaa wis mair skelvie". As always, we would welcome any further information not currently addressed by our 22-volume online Dictionary of the Scots Language.
This week's Scots word was written by Dr Maggie Scott.
First published 25th October 2006