Monday, July 31, 2017

A good skate

My mom told me that Ben is “a good skate.” That’s a compliment, of course, but — what? I had to look it up. The explanation, once I found my way to it, is simple. Bear with me:

Revolutionary War soldiers liked to sing the Scottish song “Maggie Lauder,” the chorus of which chided a blatherskate, a gabby person full of nonsense or hot air. The song is a very old one dating back to the l7th century, and the word blatherskate is older still, formed from bladder, an obsolete English word for an inflated pretentious man, a windbag, and a contemptuous use of the word skate, referring to the common food fish. Why the skate was chosen for the humorous word isn’t clear, perhaps because it was believed to inflate itself like a blowfish, or possibly just because it was common. In any case, “Maggie Lauder” made blatherskate popular in America and later, in the 19th century, when Americans invented their native word cheapskate, for a tightwad, they borrowed the skate from it. This is a more roundabout explanation than the theory that the skate in cheapskate comes from a British slang word for chap, but it seems more logical, as skate in the sense of chap never had much currency in the U.S., except in the term good skate, meaning a good person.

Robert Hendrickson, The Facts of File Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins (New York: Facts on File, 1997).
So there it is: a good skate is a good chap, a good person.

Good skate at one point was clearly a matter of common knowledge, well-known enough to show up in titles: A 1929 comedy short (dir. Francis Corby): Good Skates. A 1939 news short: Good Skates. A 1964 episode of The Lucy Show: ”Lucy and the Good Skate.“ A 1967 episode of That Girl (in which Ann learns to roller-skate): “The Good Skate.” A 1980 Peanuts special in which Peppermint Patty trains for a figure-skating competition: She’s a Good Skate, Charlie Brown. A 1989 episode of Perfect Strangers: “Good Skates.” And as recently as 1992, a Disney Minnie ’n Me book by Ruth Lerner Perle: You’re a Good Skate, Lilly.

And then there’s this Boy Scout comic strip, Good Turn Bobby:


[“He Proves to Be a Good Skate.” Boys’ Life, January 1937. Click for a larger view and clearer joke.]

I’m sharing these discoveries with the good skate, and with my mom, who’s also a good skate, and whose one-off use of this expression started it all. Thanks, Mom!

[The Oxford English Dictionary has bletherskate and blatherskite. Perhaps Robert Hendrickson split the difference. About skate with reference to a person: “Etymology uncertain.” “Maggie Lauder” resides at YouTube in a bewildering number of incarnations. Here’s one.]

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