Language Pulsations: Sketchy (Repost)

“Sketchy…” “Sketch!” “Totally sketchville…” Sketchiness and the judging of things and situations as sketchy is so ubiquitous in teenage and college social culture that I never gave it a second thought. There are so many moments in daily life that beg for the word—Facebook stalking, the cream of mushroom soup at the university cafeteria, Rob Blagojevich, or that guy you met who constantly washes his hands with Clorox wipes. What did we ever do without “sketchy”?

“Sketchy” is a relatively new word. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it was first recorded in 1805 when a literary review compared two translations of Homer, calling one a “meagre copy” and the other “an imitation so free and sketchy as to leave no likeness.” The word came, obviously, from “sketch,” an unfinished drawing, which derived from a seventeenth-century Dutch word “schets” (or perhaps Greek skizze, the evidence is, yes, sketchy), which itself came from Greek skedios, meaning “temporary, extraneous.”

Most English dictionaries will define “sketchy” as “resembling a sketch; incomplete; superficial.” But M-W Online’s third definition of “sketchy” as “questionable, iffy,” encompasses the new sense of the word. (“He seemed really nervous and distracted at lunch but wouldn’t say why, it was really sketchy.”) Other synonyms provided by my fellow sketchperts include weird, shady, dodgy, untrustworthy, poorly thought-out, awkward, and squiffy. (Squiffy? I have no idea.)

In general, I feel as though “sketchy” is an updated version of the word “weird,” which describes similar situations but which is a bit outdated and has a more puerile, grade-school-recess ring to it (“You called me weird, I’m telling on you!”). Indeed, one Urban Dictionary respondent defined “sketchy” as “When somebody is really different, outspoken, odd, weird, off-beat.”

On the other hand, “sketchy” has a wider range of meanings than the mere “weird.” When applied to a person, the word connotes one who is unreliable, untrustworthy, or of dubious worth. Describing a piece of technology as sketchy—”the camera is sketchy”—means that it is not built well or is malfunctioning. In skateboarding lingo, “sketchy” means you didn’t land the trick, dude.

Sketchiness comes in many flavors. There is “sketch,” which is growing in popularity as an adjective—for example, proclaiming “Sketch!” when you spot a particularly sketchy situation. This abbreviation also exists as a noun—”John left the party early but didn’t say why. What a sketch.” Sketchville is any place inhabited by sketches: “That bar last night was sketchville.” You may encounter idiolectal versions, such as “sketchball.” You can even take a quiz to discover how quantitatively sketchy you are.

Basically, “sketchy” can mean anything you want it to mean. This, I believe, is the key to its success. Because the concept of “sketchiness” is so broad and vague, it is not unduly offensive and you don’t feel bad pointing it out or inserting it in a conversation on a whim. Moreover, sketchy situations, people, or things rarely pose a truly existential threat. Sketchy stuff is simply different enough from the ordinary that you notice it and have a humorous story to tell about it later.

[Originally published 2/15/2009 at the Daily Monthly]

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