or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Thursday, August 17, 2006


Yesterday in Salon.com's Broadsheet piece about American anti-abortion legislation, the following sentence:

Most criticisms of the bill are obvious: 1) the medical evidence at hand is sketchy, and 2) (even if it weren't) if these people really cared about "pain," they'd do more to alleviate that of, say, born children.

Also from yesterday's Salon.com, this time the cartoon strip The K Chronicles:

Walking thru a sketchy area way too late & seeing trouble coming...and they're afraid of you!!

The first example is one of the the usual usages of "sketchy": "incomplete". (It can also mean "superficial".) But the second example is something increasingly widespread and so new it isn't in the standard dictionaries yet.

Urban Dictionary is an online dictionary compiled by the hoi polloi, and it's generally to be taken with a grain of salt--there isn't peer editing as in Wikipedia, just the continual piling on of ever more definitions plus a peer-review system which doesn't actually remove or override bad definitions. However, if you approach it with the right spirit, it's a useful and amusing adjunct to standard dictionaries, because it can give you an idea of how people are using the language nowadays.

Here's the first-listed, which is to say most roundly approved, definition of "sketchy" from the Urban Dictionary:

1) someone or something that just isnt right. 
2) the feeling you get the morning after usuing a lot of drugs, most commonly associated with extacy.
3) something unsafe
4) someone or something that gives off a bad feeling

If we ignore the typos and the grammatical mess (the word's an adjective, but all the definitions are of nouns), we have what looks like a complete definition of this new usage. Another user adds this:

This expression was first coined in reference to hastily drawn out, or sketched, building/construction plans, which were uncertain at best and disastrous at worst. The overall thread of meaning is the same, but now applies to morality/legality. On the overall continuim of goodness, things progress, in order: safe, sketchy, shady, outright criminal.

Whatever the value of the rest of the paragraph, that first assertion, unfortunately, is wrong: the original "sketchy" was first used in print in the early 19th century to refer to sketches, in the sense of both drawing and writing, and simply meant "sketch-like", with no apparent sense of denigration (except inasmuch as a sketch is inferior to a complete drawing or painting). It soon took on such a sense, though: the OED has as one early quotation "Sketches of society--very sketchy indeed", which has a strong suggestion of the "superficial"/"incomplete" meanings. (It isn't always a demeaning word: the first Salon example up above uses it in a neutral sense, to literally say that the medical information is incomplete and needs to be filled in. Context is everything.)

The new sense doesn't seem like a word I'd be using much, but I like it. The language is always evolving, and this new word has a vivid charm about it.


Post a Comment

<< Home