improve your English linguistics and lexicography

Skeleton crew – mind your Ps and Qs!

We’ve already had a couple of questions in about the origins of words – thank you for those, and keep them coming!

The first one relates to the term skeleton crew, which means just enough workers to keep a service going, as HulaGirl, who posed the question, mentioned. Why do we refer to such a pared down workforce as a skeleton crew though?

I was expecting (hoping, even?), as I began looking into this, that the answer would be something to do with gravediggers, maybe that in days gone by the team of men charged with preparing the ground for burials were, with gallows humour, known as a skeleton crew.

Sadly, that doesn’t seem to be the case; the origin of skeleton crew seems much more prosaic. It goes back to the idea of the skeleton being the most basic structure of the body, without which it would no longer be a body (obviously, there are many other elements required for it to be a properly functioning body, but the skeleton is the bit around which all that’s built). A skeleton crew, then, is the most basic level of staffing, the bare minimum for the business or operation to function; it probably won’t work well or efficiently at that level, but it will keep going.

The second word story question relates to the phrase ‘mind your Ps and Qs‘. We’ve probably all heard this at one time or another, but have you ever stopped to wonder where it comes from? Well, it goes back to the days of old-fashoined typesetting, when each letter was individually put into place before printing began. In the typesetter’s tray, lower case ‘p‘s and ‘q‘s were easily confused, so care was required to make sure you picked up the right one. Of course now, ‘mind your Ps and Qs‘ is used in more verbal contexts, but it carries the same underlying meaning – pick your words with care!

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Sharon Creese


  • I wonder if there is ever such a thing as a ‘white elephant’? I hear that phrase, but elephants are grey…

  • I have heard also about white elephants. There’s a definition in the dictionary too but they don’t say why it’s a white elephant

  • There is such a thing as a white elephant: it’s an albino elephant. In India and other parts of Asia, these animals were traditionally seen as sacred, so they were not expected to work (as most ‘tame’ elephants were). It is said that the King of Siam (now Thailand) used to make a gift of a white elephant to noblemen whom he disliked. This is very clever: a gift from the king of a sacred elephant looks like a great honour. But the recipient then has to spend a fortune maintaining an animal which may live for decades and do no productive work. So the meaning has changed a little from something similar to a backhanded compliment, to something expensive but useless.

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