Caryn Gootkin was offended by the name her neighbourhood watch used to enlist volunteers for a midnight mountain patrol. Unsure whether her outrage was justified, she explored the meaning and origins of the word ‘skollie’ and examined her own reaction to this word.
My local neighbourhood watch, which is both efficient and effective, called on residents to join their search the slopes of Table Mountain one night. The purpose was to root out those criminals “who hide out on the mountain side and escape that way as well”. They called this expedition ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Skollie’. And I found this offensive.
But, because I am closely involved with the plight of the vulnerable and marginalised through The Big Issue, I realised I may be overreacting. So I asked others what they thought.
Am I alone?
My Twitter followers generally agreed with me that using the word ‘skollie’ to describe a person who is on the mountain after dark created the impression that people who are forced to live in the open are criminals.
We all felt instinctively that this uniquely South African word was inappropriate in the context, but few knew enough about the meaning and origin of the word to justify this reaction. And so the seed of this column planted itself in my mind.
What does the word mean?
I began my research with the usual online suspects and then asked the members of my Professional Editor’s Group (PEG) Google Group, who always rise to the occasion, for their input.
The results of our collective effort included the following definitions:
The Dictionary of South African English: skolly, skollie … A street hoodlum, usu. a criminal or potential criminal and member of a gang. … [Afk. prob. fr. Du. schoelje rogue, rascal.]
The OED: skolly, n. Etymology: < Afrikaans, probably < Dutch schoelje scoundrel, rascal. S. Afr.
World English Dictionary: (South African) a Coloured hooligan, usually one of a gang [C20: of unknown origin]
I also came across these instances of its early use in both local and international newspapers, all of which speak volumes about the social mores at the time and the intended use of the term.
8 January 1934 Cape Argus “The accused were actually several degrees lower than the average ‘scolly-boy’ who commits most of the crimes of violence and theft in the Peninsula.”
27 March 1944 Foreign News “ Cape Town, busy, crowded tavern of the seas, is plagued by young mulatto hoodlums who work in gangs and are called skollies… Sometimes using colored girls for decoys, skollies waylay and rob British and American servicemen.”
28 January 1961 Cape Times “Don’t you realise that your son is becoming a White skolly?”
Most traditional references attribute the origin of the word to the similar-meaning Dutch word ‘schoelje’. My favourite, however, is the colourful (although possibly anachronistic) explanation I found on Wikipedia, which links the word to South African Greek slang:
“skollie – a gangster, to steal (from Greek skolios “crooked”, widely used in Cape Town, originally applied by Greek convenience-store owners to street-youths who shoplifted)”
(Greek corner café owners habitually chased loitering youths out of their stores. I don’t think, however, that I was ever called a ‘skollie’.)
Has the jury reached a verdict?
Armed with a better understanding of the word’s origin and a clearer idea in my mind of its intended meaning, I reconsidered my initial reaction to the neighbourhood patrol.
I’d learnt that the title was conceived by the local Community Policing Forum, rather than my neighbourhood watch on its own. I had also received a follow-up newsletter describing the ‘success’ of the operation (four people “were taken down to the police station and two were confirmed to be criminals. So it was a success all around.”)
Did my gut reaction stand the tests of both time and additional information? It certainly did. Two people who were sheltering on the mountain that night because they had nowhere else to sleep were hauled off to the police station.
The aim was, as the ‘success’ newsletter reveals, to deliver whomever they found on Table Mountain to the police. (Forced removals, anyone?) Perhaps then the CPF should have named their operation to reflect its true intention: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Bergie.*
* Bergie (n) South African informal a vagabond, esp one living on the slopes of Table Mountain in the Western Cape province of South Africa [from Afrikaans berg mountain], from the Collins English Dictionary – Complete and Unabridged}
Follow Caryn on Twitter @inotherwordscg
Illustration: Drawn by Charles Bell, the anti-alcohol campaigner. Cape Colony. Drawn in 1839.