Skell, as a stereotypical or archetypal designation, refers to a person who is homeless, vagrant or derelict. It is often used to connote such a person who is habitually engaged in small-time criminal activity, especially by one working as a con artist or panhandler.
In its modern form, the use of skell as a slang term in the United States appears to date only from the 1960s, most especially from New York City. The word has sometimes been used by the police officer characters on the TV shows NYPD Blue, Third Watch, and Law and Order: SVU. It also appears in the 1964 novel Last Exit to Brooklyn by American author Hubert Selby, Jr.
Possible origins for the word include:
- The 17th century British slang word skelder, a noun and verb which referred to a professional beggar, especially one who falsely pretended to be a wounded former soldier to gain sympathy; more generally, it could be used for a swindler or cheat. An early recorded use is by Ben Jonson, from his play Poetaster, written in 1601: 'An honest decayed commander, cannot skelder, cheat, nor be seene in a bawdie house.' In an older military connection, the term skelder seems to have been used in early Medieval England to mean 'shield-maker' (Old Norse 'skjoldur'?), the supposed derivation of the streetname Skeldergate in the city of York.
- The Dutch schelm, a word meaning a villain or rogue.
- The Latin scelus, meaning a wicked deed or wickedness.
- An abbreviation of skeleton.
Use in film and television
The term is used several times in the film Miller's Crossing, especially in regard to the character Bernie Bernbaum.
In the Third Watch television series, the term has been frequently used in casual conversation between the leading NYPD characters such as John 'Sully' Sullivan, Maurice 'Bosco' Boscorelli and others.
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