Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Skittles

Posted by Elyse Bruce on March 24, 2015

Every once in a while you hear someone allege that another person is skittles, meaning that their thinking is all over the place.  And you may hear the word used in this sense:  “He had the skittles kicked out of him.”  If that’s happened to someone, then their thinking is also all over the place as they are bent over in pain.

That meaning is courtesy of the 1999 Inspector Gadget movie.  In the movie, the Gadgetmobile (voiced by American actor, political commentator, and comedian D. L. Hughley) crashes into the Dr. Claw’s limousine and upon impact, thousands of Skittles pour out of the glove compartment and air bag.  Penny (Inspector Gadget’s niece) arrives on the scene and notices that the Gadgetmobile “got the Skittles kicked out of him.”  Since the movie’s release in theaters over 15 years ago, this meaning for the word has made its way into every day jargon.

However, the new meaning is predicated on the fruit-flavoured bite-sized candy of the same name that debuted in England in 1974.

Historically speaking, the word does indeed, exist in Danish and Swedish, in the sense of a child’s marble.  This dates back to the mid-17th century and is of unknown origin.  So it’s not surprising that a colorful, bite-sized candy the size of a child’s marble would be a called a skittle by the manufacturer.

However, skittles is also a game that dates back to 1625 and is Scandinavian in origin.  The game is one where a wooden ball or disk is used to knock down ninepins, and is the forerunner to bowling.  Each of the ninepins is known as a skittle.  It didn’t take long before the game of skittles was popular in England as well as in Scandinavia and in other countries between Scandinavian and English shores.

But even before then, Skittle was a last name given to families who were weavers as another name for a weaving shuttle was a skittle.  The first recorded version of that name was for Agnes Skittle who married John Culpack at St. Nicolas in Colchester, Essex on September 17, 1581.  It was at this time in history that last names were introduced in England.  It was a way to keep accurate records for personal taxation purposes — a government program that was new to the empire ruled under Queen Elizabeth I (7 September 1533 – 24 March 1603) when she ruled England from 17 November 1558 through to her death in 1603.

And so, in the end, skittles refers to a game of old-fashioned bowling where pins are knocked down the old-fashioned way with a wooden ball or a disk, and the scoring — while different from modern-day bowling — demands a certain degree of skill from its participants.  It’s not much different from the skill required of weavers with their many skittles shuttling back and forth as it creates quality cloths.

In the end, whether it’s weaving or bowling, skittles tend to wind up all over the place when all is said and done!  The word, as far as Idiomation can find, dates back to at least the mid-1500s, and most likely well before then.

Thursday, Idiomation will take a closer look at the idiom beer and skittles to see what that’s all about.

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3 Responses to “Skittles”

  1. Erik said

    I though you might be headed for duckpin bowling midway through your write-up, I never knew skittles had such a “colorful” past. Curious, I went looking for your duck entries and found ducks in a row (https://idiomation.wordpress.com/2011/08/22/ducks-in-a-row/), which to my surprise also relates to bowling. Small world, or something.

    Thanks!

    • Thanks for commenting, Erik. I never know where an idiom will take me until I get there. I have to admit that I was as surprised as you to learn of skittles colorful past (as you put it). I hope you’ll be back on Thursday when the idiom is “beer and skittles.”

  2. […] « Skittles […]

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