Mark Liberman of Language Log introduces me to a new word, sketchball. It’s apparently a sort of generalized insult (you can see a variety of attempted definitions at Urban Dictionary, which should never be taken as a serious reference since anyone can put anything they want in it); it’s obviously formed on the model of screwball and its many offspring (goofball, nutball, oddball, sleazeball, slimeball…), but what bothers me about it is that I have no intuitive sense of it. To me, sketchy (from which the noun is built) means simply—in the words of the Tenth Edition of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate—”of the nature of a sketch, roughly outlined; wanting in completeness, clearness, or substance.” But the Eleventh Edition has a new sense “questionable, iffy: got into a sketchy situation, a sketchy character,” and this has not entered my linguistic consciousness, so that the insult sounds to me like a ball with a drawing outlined on it. Intellectually, I’m resigned to the inevitability of falling further and further behind the colloquial form of my native language, but my gut has yet to accept it; I’m not ready to be the clueless old geezer wondering what in tarnation these young folks are going on about.


  1. Interesting… I had known the word “sketchy” as in “a sketchy neighborhood” = a neighborhood of dubious safety or reputation. As a result “sketchball” works for me on analogy with “screwy” and “screwball.” But my fiance uses the word “sketch” as an adjective, which I can in no way accept. He says things like “That bar looks kind of sketch.” It isn’t a long way from “sketchy” to “sketch,” but I can’t make the transition. So I am sympathetic to your trouble with “sketchball.” We all have our limits.

  2. My 31-y.-o. son uses “sketchy” as his main word for that kind of thing. “Sketchy” isn’t all that bad, sort of like marginal, dubious or doubtful. In some way not confidence-inspiring or lacking in a complete set of traits.
    He can also say, “I’m feeling sort of sketchy today”, which would mean low-energy, hungover, or scattered.

  3. I have slang sketchy in my lexicon, but sketchball is opaque to me. Boh. I didn’t know -ball was that productive!

  4. Sketchy has squarely entered the lexicon, at least among us undergrads in the midwest. I’ve never heard sketchball, or sketch as an adjective. For an insult, I would normally say “sketchy character” or some variant.
    I have occasionally heard such usage as “this place is sketching me out.” This is by analogy with freaky and freaking one out, I suppose. It doesn’t work for me, although I have no trouble figuring out what it means.

  5. dude, that’s so sketch.
    Actually it’s totally transparent for me in context, but for me ‘sketchy’ or ‘sketch’ is a very common adjective, meaning that something’s weird, shady, dangerous or illegal. If you describe someone as being ‘kind of sketch’ the connotation to me would be someone who seems threateningly malajusted, or possibly criminal.
    It doesn’t always have to be that bad, if you say that you ‘feel a bit sketchy’ that would just mean you’re only slightly unwell, or just feeling a bit odd – although if you’re feeling ‘really sketchy’ you’re probably rather ill.
    My intuition tells me that it’s probably originally a west coast term – I think I picked it up from my Californian cousins.

  6. I can affirm this use of sketchy/sketch, and would compare it most closely to the adjective “shady”, with shady, I think, veering into the more criminal sense of the word, whereas sketchy seems to delineate something have to do with a more moral or tasteful sense of things, as in, perhaps, some sketchy character who sits at the corner booth of a diner shouting things at the waitress.

  7. I’m with Angelo: I’m quite used to “sketchy” in its colloquial sense, but for some reason “sketchball” doesn’t convey to me what it’s supposed to mean.

  8. “Sketchy” is firmly in my lexicon. I had no idea that it was opaque to anyone.
    But sketchball doesn’t work in my idiolect, I guess mainly because “sketchy” is too mild a term. As mentioned earlier it basically means “iffy”, so sketchball makes about as sense to me as “ifball.”
    If you hadn’t explained the origin, I would have assumed it was based off of another slang meaning of sketchy, which my raver friends tell me about: mildly high on e (or similar party drugs).

  9. I’ll gladly admit, I was as puzzled as LH. “Sketchy” to me means nothing but “outlined”, “not fully developed”, and I’m a twenty-something. Foreigner granted – that might be the reason.

  10. sketchy is the translation equivalent of Australian English ‘dodgy’, which I use all the time. But I don’t think I could call anyone a dodgeball…

  11. michael farris says

    I’m with the hat, I’m feeling more and more like an old geezer who can’t understand what the sam hill these young whippersnappers are trying to say.
    Living outside the US I thought that the internet (including online NPR) and renting dvds would be enough to keep me rougly abreast of current usage, but obviously I was wrong. I’m officially cut off.

  12. “Flaky” seems to mean “sketchy” in the sense of unpredictable or unreliable, but with a definite feeling that it might sometimes be a good thing.

  13. really? I can’t use flaky like that, only in the sense of unreliable.

  14. I’m 25, and as such firmly within the age range that should be using “sketchy” in this way, but I don’t, and none of my friends seem to either. It still means something like “roughly outlined” for me, and I’d be confused if someone used it to mean something that’s already covered by “shady” and “sleazy”.
    I’m from Texas, went to Arizona State…

  15. Well, someone flaky can’t be stodgy or stuffy….. there’s the idea that they might be a bit looser and more fun.

  16. I’m surprised at the number of Americans saying they’re unfamiliar with “sketchy” meaning “shady” or “dodgy”. It certainly seems like I’ve known it for a long time, though I don’t use it much myself. I’m 42 and live in DC (born in North Carolina, grew up in Virginia, also lived in Connecticut for a few years).

  17. Here in Southern California, “sketch” is in somewhat common usage (though I don’t say it, and none of my friends do either). I tend to hear it mostly from girls, and it can also be used as a noun (e.g. “that place was the sketch”).

  18. According to the Unfogged people, that phrase should be “That place was teh sketch”. In geek e-writing (“leet” sometimes written “1337”)”teh” is sort of an intensifier of “the”, as if italicized.
    The spoken form varies, just as does the spoken form of “pwn”.

  19. This is definitely a regional dialect, although I’m not sure which. I was introduced to “sketchy” in this sense on the central Atlantic coast, around DC. Farther north I heard mainly “shady” used in the same meaning. I’m familiar with “dodgy” as well; at least it’s said in Great Britain. It never occurred to me that -ball was based on analogy from screwball. I just took it as an intensifier, used for a variety of insults. Dorkball, cheeseball. As in, he’s not just a dork, he’s a whole ball of dork. -bag or -wad also work similarly.

  20. I too can affirm that sketchy is firmly esconced in the American mid-Atlantic. A friend of mine refers to a gentlman with whom she had an unfortunate romantic encounter “Sketchy Dan”, for instance. It’s so completely unremarkable that without context, I’d definitely expect the “dodgy” meaning rather than “roughly outlined”. Adjectival sketch, on the other hand, is one of those words where the hipsters can’t remember if they’re saying it ironically or not. I personally use it without shame. Occasionally, with certain of my friends, I will go so far as to say something is “total sketch”. (I realize that doesn’t really make sense syntactically, but keep in mind I also use win as an adjective, to the consternation of just about everyone I know.)
    Another near-synonym for sketchy is skeevy. Interestingly, a quick Google turns up a post on skeevy‘s origins, suggesting it comes from schifare, “to be disgusted or sickened”, and even that it was portmanteau’d into skank.

  21. A term in the skeevy-skanky-sketchy group (meaningwise) is “rasty”. It may be a countryish term.

  22. Martin, I think skeevy is significantly more disgusting or creepy than sketchy is.

  23. I’m from Connecticut, and I’d always understood “sketchy” to mean “shady” or “dodgy” as mentioned above. However, in college (Dartmouth) it was used specifically to refer to those with “loose morals”, for instance, “this sketchy guy has been hitting on my all night” or “Steve got drunk and sketched out on me” or, more relevantly, “Bob is a sketchball, don’t let him touch you.”
    “Sketchy” was pretty productive in that sense.

  24. I’ve known of ‘sketchy’ as ‘dubious’ for a long time, but I didn’t know that people were applied this term until 2000 and James Cameron’s Dark Angel (don’t laugh; I was thirteen). There was a character named Sketchy on that show, and the “official” biography said that he got his nickname because he was a sketchy character.
    It seems perfectly apparent in that context what it means, and I’ve just always had that in the back of my mind. I’ve never used it except to describe someone who might legally be a sketchy character, but, yeah.

  25. Sketchy has been in regular use as far back as I remember during my New England upbringing. But I first heard skeev used as a verb (“that really skeeved me out!”) from a New Jersey native. Its meaning was immediately apparent from context, bearing notes of disgust or even revulsion. I wouldn’t call skeevy a near synonym of sketchy primarily for this reason. Saying something is skeevy suggests that it might make your stomach turn or your flesh crawl, at least in a comical sense. Saying something is sketchy to me implies a low measure of passability, as in “that’s a pretty sketchy place to get lunch”. You’d eat there, but with some trepidation. You would not want to buy food from someplace skeevy.

  26. Regarding “skeeve” as a verb, I think I first heard that in The Sopranos. Of course there the grammatical arguments are reversed “Ya skeeve the human body that much?” = “Are you that grossed out by the human body?”

  27. The Sopranos, eh? I heard it used before (but not long before) that series started, and the speaker was from very near the Sopranos part of Jersey.

  28. Songdog, I agree with you about “sketchy” versus “skeevy”, but judging by Luke’s comment (which assigns the “loose morals” meaning to “sketchy”) and the existence of nearly as many Google hits for “sketching me out” as for “skeeving me out”, there are definitely people who disagree.
    The mention of “The Sopranos” makes me wonder if “skeeve” has an Italian origin. “Schivare” means “avoid” and “schifo” means “disgust”.

  29. I’m 31, born San Francisco and raised in the Bay Area, and sketchy was a term I knew and used when I was in high school in the late 80s. I’ve lived in Portland, Oregon since 2001 and I don’t hear it used much up here. It was used as described in previous posts like the word “shady.” It’s meaning ranged from mildly unsettling to potentially dangerous, “that was a sketchy situation,” but it seems to me that “shady” would have been the preferred term once it crossed over into something more threatening or criminal. “He’s a sketchy character” is less ominous to me than “that guy’s a little shady.” I’ve never heard it used in place of “flaky,” and while “flaky” is sometimes used mildly, “he’s a bit flaky but we love him anyway,” I’ve never heard it used as a particularly positive attribute. “Sketch” used as in, “that was so sketch” is something I’ve heard more often from people much younger than I, or who have spent time in Southern California, which has a dialect unto itself, even among native Californians.

  30. I should add that I’ve never heard the term “sketchball” before reading in on LH. It doesn’t work for me.

  31. Nor have I, and no more does it work for me. But my son probably uses it with his friends.

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