Skell, as a stereotypical or archetypal designation, refers to a person who is homeless, vagrant or derelict. It is often used to connote such a person who is habitually engaged in small-time criminal activity, especially by one working as a con artist or panhandler.
In its modern form, the use of skell
as a slang
term in the United States
appears to date only from the 1970s, most especially from New York
. The word has sometimes been used by the police officer characters on the tv show NYPD Blue.
Possible origins for the word include:
- The seventeenth-century British slang word skelder, a noun and verb which referred to a professional beggar, especially one who falsely pretended to be a wounded former soldier to gain sympathy; more generally, it could be used for a swindler or cheat. An early recorded use is by Ben Jonson, from his play Poetaster, written in 1601: 'An honest decayed commander, cannot skelder, cheat, nor be seene in a bawdie house.' In an older military connection, the term skelder seems to have been used in early medieval England to mean 'shield-maker' (Old Norse 'skjoldur'?), the supposed derivation of the streetname Skeldergate in the city of York.
- The Dutch schelm, a word meaning a villain or rogue.
- The Latin scelus, meaning a wicked deed or wickedness.
- An abbreviation of skeleton.
Use in film and television
Crow T. Robot
refers to Michael J. Nelson
as a skell in a sketch performed in episode 905 of Mystery Science Theater 3000.
Ed Burns (Mickey) refers to Mike McGlone (Francis) as a skell in the movie She's the One.
Joe Pesci (Nicky Santoro) uses the term skell in his rant to Robert Deniro (Sam Rothstein) in the movie Casino.
Police Officer Smitty refers to Bender as a skell when he and his partner, URL, are undercover in Little Bitaly in the second-season episode of Futurama entitled Bender Gets Made.
- skell defined in Random House dictionary
- skell defined in World Wide Words