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Skivers, scroungers, and Lapwings

Jonty Langley takes a closer look at the usage of ‘skivers’ and ‘scroungers’ in our latest opinion article.

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Bloody Lapwings. Running around the countryside with their stupid haircuts, messing around while the rest of us do an honest day’s work. Here’s a fact the RSPB won’t tell you: over 90 per cent of British Lapwings are unemployed in any formal sense. Skivers, the lot of them.

At least, that’s what an 1854 use of the word ‘skiving’ might have us believe. ‘[S]kiving like a lapwing’ was apparently a common enough phrase in Northamptonshire at the time, to make it into Anne E. Baker’s Glossary of Northamptonshire words and phrases, describing the birds’ skimming over the surface of the water.

Today, of course, the term is used by politicians and the most indignant of our national newspapers more than ornithologists, though the lapwing-related sense of the word is informative. In the 19th century, to skive was to move lightly and quickly; to dart.

Since the early 20th century, the word has been more commonly used in Britain to mean:

To evade a duty, to shirk; to avoid work by absenting oneself, to play truant.

In the context of recent discussions of benefits and the skivers who do not deserve to claim them, that seems about right. The most likely etymology, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), seems to be from the French, esquiver, that is: to dodge, or slink away. But I like to think of my most successful attempts at skiving as having the same light, quick, darting motion and glorious enjoyment of freedom as that of a bird skimming the water.

Perhaps that’s why I’m more comfortable with the idea of skiving than scrounging. Ducking and diving playfully out of work and responsibility, in its most innocent form, can seem charming. ‘Scrounging’, skiving’s partner in headlines, speeches and comment-sections’ diatribes, has little of the Lapwing about it.

To scrounge, according to the OED, is:

To sponge on or live at the expense of others.

There’s a charming streak running through the popular history of skiving, from Jerome K Jerome to Hawkeye Pierce. But scrounging carries with it the moral baggage of abusing grace. For opponents of the Welfare State and that strange tribe of political thinkers whose highest goal is ‘small government’ (but who resolutely refuse to move to Mogadishu), that definition applies to anyone receiving benefits. And when you consider that, according to the Oxford English Corpus, some of the modifiers most commonly used with ‘scrounger’ are: ‘work-shy’, ‘dole’, ‘welfare’ and ‘benefit’, it appears that this new narrative of the undeserving poor has taken hold in our society.

That seems a shame. Partly because of the damage done by the myth of the welfare scrounger (which people who value human life more than profit will find sad), and partly because it’s a little unfair. Benefits are, of course, in the context in which ‘scrounger’ is most often used, claimed by the unemployed or by those whose employment gives them too little money to live. In an economic system which requires a degree of unemployment in order to keep wages down and requires wages to be as low as possible, benefits are all that stand between those not blessed with luck, a privileged background, or extraordinary ambition and drive, and having to beg or steal. Begging and stealing being, historically speaking, activities that also counted as ‘scrounging’. You’re a scrounger if you claim, you’re a scrounger if you don’t.

Not all those who get their money from something other than work are called scroungers, of course. Those who inherit, for instance. Pensioners, because they vote. Those who ‘earn’ rent by the mere act of owning property. And bands still earning potentially infinite amounts of money from work they recorded in the 60s, whether or not the work they’re doing now is any good.

‘Scrounger’ and ‘skiver’ are likely to stay with us as long as the majority of people buy into the idea that they themselves will never be poor. Politicians and the populist press will mirror our optimism back at us in the form of safe and happy judgement, as untroubled by critical consideration as one of those lazy, unemployed Lapwings.

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