Tag Archives: skulk


skulk. verb. Lurk in the dark; slink in back alleys and murky walks; cloak your bulk; shirk your work or watch the clock.

OK, really, what is it about the liquid-plus-k ending? And even moreso with this word, which slides in with the /s/ before giving that choking dark click-liquid-click. It could be the sound of a guillotine, but more likely it’s a secret door sliding open – or closed. Whatever it is, it carries a skull-crossbones sign.

Skulk comes from some Scandinavian language or other – Norwegian or Danish, we would assume (they’re so similar; Danish sounds like Norwegian that was left in a pocket and run through the wash). The Oxford English Dictionary notes, “There is apparently a remarkable lack of evidence for the currency of the word in the 15th and 16th centuries, compared with its frequency in earlier and later use.” This is, of course, utterly apposite: it skulked for a couple of centuries. Why not?

And what kind of a creature might skulk? A skunk or a skink? Perhaps a snake? As likely a sleuth or a sloth, but those are softer. I would stake my luck on a grimalkin. I will tell you this: the liquidity is crucial. When you skulk, you move like milk, or more likely sulky silk. You do not clunk.


Visual: This word looks like its hair is standing on end. It has an interesting pattern – it starts with the curvy s and then mixes verticals with the racy cross-angles of the kickers on the k’s. The u in the middle seems like a little receptacle (perhaps a cryoconite hole) or something small just hiding.

In the mouth: It’s smooth on the tip of the tongue but knocking at the back: an up-front gentleness belies a knockabout behind the scenes.

Echoes: There are a few words this one brings to mind: skull, skullcap, skunk, skink, hulk, sulk, shirk, and perhaps dulcet and sultry and lurk and maybe milk. And inculcate. It has a sound of something metallic being retracted or sheathed. Or of someone being choked.

Etymology: Like many words in English, skulk seems to come from old Scandinavian sources. It appears to be cognate with Norwegian skulka ‘lurk, lie watching’ and Danish skulke and Swedish skolka, ‘shirk, play hookey’. One interesting thing is that after being in common use in the 1200s and 1300s, this word pretty much disappeared in the 1400s and 1500s, and then reemerged after two centuries of skulking.

Collocations: Skulk around, skulk off, skulk away, skulk behind [something]. It’s not a common enough word to have a clear set of usual people who skulk.

Overtones: Skulk seems like a more mobile version of lurk, the very shape of its articulation suggesting to my mind a kind of ducking and peeking. You lurk in one place; you skulk around like a would-be ninja or a pervert or some other kind of guilty party. The nucleus of the word (that vowel plus liquid) has a very dark, cloaked feeling, and the fact that it’s followed by /k/ (especially /lk/, since the /l/ has a velar coarticulation – the tongue is up at the back of the mouth) joins it to words like lurk, dark, cloak, murk, and similar words with obscure images.

Semantics: This word refers to sneaking around or to lurking in concealment. One thing is certain: it imputes dark or cowardly motives.

Where to find it: It’s more often seen in literary or high-toned prose. It’s not that it’s no good for a tabloid newspaper; indeed, tabloids spend inordinate amounts of space on personages who are skulking around doing this or that – stories gathered by reporters who skulked around a lot to get it. But it’s become a less common word, and that raises the tone. You’ll find it in Dickens and Fielding and similar greats of the kind of literature that was once read by hoi polloi but is now a hallmark of a bookworm. The word, like its readers, has gone into skulking.