“Skinnymalinky long legs, umberellae feet”, as the old children’s rhyme goes. The term first appears in the Dictionaries of the Scots Language (DSL) to describe “a thin skinny person or animal; an emaciated creature”. An early example in DSL comes from the Brechin Advertiser of September 1892: “Twa skinamalinks o’ the genus horse.”

A cast list from Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, listed one performer in their Grand Comic Christmas Annual as “Skinnymalink”. This example comes from a theatrical newspaper called The Era which ceased publication in 1939.

But back to our rhyme. A different version appears in a letter to the Aberdeen Press and Journal of April 1929: “Away in the vicinity of seventy ago (when I was a lad of eight years)… A very common saying … was: Skinnymalinks. Skinnymalinkie-di-do, He made pair o’ shoes for me; They didna last winter.” Quite different from the more familiar one above. However, in DSL there is another example, also from Aberdeen, which was recorded in the Sunday Times of January 1956: “There used to be children’s song in Aberdeen relating the adventures of a thin man call ‘Skinnymalinky Lang Legs’, which is still sung as a skipping song, etc: Skinnymalinky lang legs, Umbrella feet.”

The origin is obscure, but DSL does have an entry for “ma” which offers some explanation: “An intermediate syllable appearing frequently in Scots compound words, usually of obscure, imitative origin. It is apparently for rhythmic effect only.” The entry then goes on to list occurrences of this, including “skinnymalink”.

Scots Word of the Week is written by Pauline Cairns Speitel. Visit DSL Online at