I was reading Catherine Shoard’s Guardian puff piece on Mark Rylance (“the best actor of his generation,” “the world’s greatest actor”) when I was pulled up short by this passage:
He plays Terry, a banker who once ran a Congo-based squad of assassins (including Penn and Ray Winstone). As projects go, it feels a bit skew whiff for a pacifist so committed that he winces at the very mention of American Sniper.
I was so unfamiliar with “skew whiff” that I assumed it must be a typo, but a moment’s googling showed me my error: the Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary defines it as “sloping instead of straight, or wrongly positioned: You’ve got your hat on skew-whiff.” And it’s not some recent bit of slang; the OED (in an entry from 1933) takes it back almost three centuries:
dial. and colloq.
Askew, awry (lit. and fig.).
1754 Scots Mag. July 337/2 Behind, with a coach-horse short dock, cut your hair; Stick a flower before, scew-whiff, with an air.
1839 W. Holloway Gen. Dict. Provincialisms (new ed.) 154/1 Skew-whift, adj. (Askew, from Skef, Belg. oblique; and perhaps Whiffed, blown.) Awry.
1895 J. T. Clegg Stories, Sketches, & Rhymes in Rochdale Dial. 228 Her judgment’s getten thrut skew-wift.
1899 Shetland News 20 May 7/2, I hed ta geng skewquieff.
1935 A. P. Herbert What a Word! iv. 101 Go on cackling..until the orator has to stop and ask you why you cackle. Then tell him. He won’t get Frankenstein skew-whiff again.
1946 D. L. Sayers Unpop. Opinions 59 When Neptune shouldered Britain out of the sea, he did not make a neat engineering job of it. Characteristically, Britain came up skew-wiff, with one edge thick and hard and the other soft and thin, like a slice of wedding-cake.
1959 I. Opie & P. Opie Lore & Lang. Schoolchildren iii. 47 If a boy’s cap is on skew-whiff: ‘Are you wearing that cap or just walking underneath it?’
1974 J. Cleary Peter’s Pence iii. 82 Our plans seem to have gone a bit skew-wiff, don’t they? That’s the trouble with the Irish.
1977 Lancashire Life Feb. 53/4 Thi tie’s put on skew-wiff.
Is this a word every UKanian knows? And are any of my non-UK readers familiar with it?
Rylance is indeed an amazing actor, by the way, and my wife and I are thoroughly enjoying the BBC Wolf Hall adaptation.