skunk (n.)

common weasel-like mammal of North America that emits a fetid odor when threatened, 1630s, squunck, from a southern New England Algonquian language (perhaps Massachusett) word, from Proto-Algonquian */šeka:kwa/, from */šek-/ "to urinate" + */-a:kw/ "fox" [Bright].

Among Europeans, who sometimes called it after their polecat, the skunk is one of the earliest noted and described of the North American animals. Sagard-Théodat's "Histoire du Canada" (1636) introduced it to the naturalists as "enfans du diable, que les Hurons appelle Scangaresse, ... une beste fort puante," etc.

Eighteenth-century Jesuit missionary Martin Dobrizhoffer, who tangled with one, wrote, "Had I a hundred tongues I should think them all insufficient to convey an adequate idea of the stench" and concluded that "Europe may be congratulated upon her good fortune in being unacquainted with this cursed beast" ["An Account of the Abipones," as translated from the Latin by Sara Coleridge, the poet's daughter].

Its fur has been marketed as Alaska sable. As an insult, "contemptible person," attested from 1841. Skunk cabbage, which grows in moist ground in the U.S. and gives of a strong pungent odor when bruised, is attested from 1751; earlier was skunkweed (1738); so called from their odor when bruised.

[A]fter having finished looking at it, a spirit of mischief (I can attribute it to nothing else) prompted me to lean forward on my horse, and strike it over the back with a small whip I had in my hand. Scarcely had the whip touched the animal's back, when, turning its posteriors towards me and lifting up its hind-leg, it discharged a Stygian liquor, the odour of which I shall recollect till my dying day.—In an instant, the whole Prairie seemed to be filled with a stench, that is beyond all description. It was so powerful, pungent, and sickening, that at first it nearly made me faint, and I galloped away from the brute with all possible expedition. ["An Excursion Through the United States and Canada During the Years 1822-23 by An English Gentleman," London, 1824]

skunk (v.)

"to completely defeat (in a game of cards, billiards, etc.)," especially "to shut out from scoring," 1831, in reference to not getting a king in the game of checkers, from skunk (n.). Related: Skunked; skunking.

updated on December 22, 2022