skiving, bunking, playing hooky

I have now lived in the UK (Brighton, England, precisely) for one quarter of my life. This came home to me today in a lexical way. You might want to shield your eyes now, people in the northeastern/midwestern/western US. We've been having days like this here (photos from my employer, Sussex University):

The temperatures have been around 70°F/21°C, which yesterday prompted three-year-old Grover to drag herself around in her shirtsleeves* protesting "I'm very VERY BOILING." This is how I know that my child is English. And that she watches too much Charlie and Lola.

Given the weather and that I have a lot of reading to do for work, I went to the picnic tables outside my building this afternoon. I had expected to find, as I had on Wednesday, some competition for seats in sunny spaces, as everyone would be wanting to work outside. But there was no one there. (I took photos. I have no photos. Why, oh why, great Internet, has my iPhone 3G not uploaded any photos during syncing for the past three weeks?)  My conclusion: everyone else had decided to leave work early on a sunny, non-term-time Friday.

But this is what I actually thought: Everyone but me seems to have skived off.

And then I thought: I have no idea how to say that in American English. 

I put the question to the Twittersphere and received a lot of responses (thank you, all of you!), but none of them were what I was looking for. Most seemed to be about what one does when one doesn't go to school:
 (AmE): play hooky, cut class, skip class
I wanted one that was specifically about slinking out of work early. (The responders may have assumed that I was talking about students, since (a) non-Sussexers mostly don't know that we're between terms at the moment and (b) many people assume that university [BrE] lecturers/[AmE in the sense that I mean it here!] professors don't do any work when we're not teaching. I would like to disabuse anyone and everyone of that notion, but it would involve a good solid hour of ranting and possibly minor physical violence and loss of property.) Here's the OED definition for skive:

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

The term is originally from the military, so perhaps the best AmE equivalent is go AWOL (=absent without leave; marked in OED as 'orig. U.S.'), though that sounds a bit too permanent. The best suggestion that I had from the Twitterpersons was (AmE) ditch, which American Heritage also defines as being about school: ' To skip (class or school).' But, unlike the above suggestions, I can more easily use it about work (I ditched work to play Scrabble today) and to mean that I left early, rather than that I didn't show up at all. I think ditch allows this flexibility because it has other, related AmE senses concerning derailing (of trains) and ridding oneself of things or people (let's ditch Lynne and have some real fun)--which may at some level all run together as a big meaning-mass. One can transfer hooky from school to workplace too (e.g. I played hooky from work), but it, like skip, generally means not showing up at all.

***NEWSFLASH (orig. AmE)***
As I was previewing this post, about to hit *send*, two Twitterphiles suggested AmE blow off as in blow off work. That's pretty damned good. But it still isn't quite skive (see the bullet list below and compare). And I'm excited to have the excuse to mention another difference.  In AmE you can blow off a person by not showing up to an arranged meeting. In BrE you would blow [them] out. I've been told by UKers that blow off sounds obscene, but to my AmE ears blow out sounds violent--like a (AmE) tire/(BrE) tyre bursting. Now back to your regularly scheduled nonsense.

BrE has its own expressions for not going to school, including bunk off, which happens to be the first thing I thought of when I was looking for a synonym for skive. Bunk off comes from bunk meaning 'to run off', and though it's associated particularly with school, there are over 75K Google hits for bunk off work[Added a few hours later:] A friend on Facebook has pointed out (AusE, but apparently known in BrE) wag, which the Online Slang Dictionary defines it as 'to not attend school or work, without permission'. 

The only other possible translation for skive that I can think of is the general English shirk. But it just doesn't have the same connotations. Shirking ones duties is morally wrong, but skiving can be (in the current slang, at least--possibly not in the military) just a bit mischievous. (Or it can be morally bad. But my indignation about skivers this afternoon was a mock indignation--something harder to carry off when calling people shirkers).

So, I come to the conclusion that skive is a wonderful BrE word that has no equivalent.
  • I love that it is intransitive (requires no noun after it).  While words like cut, ditch and skip make you mention the thing that you're ignoring, skive lets you really ignore it.
  • I love that it can be a noun, and one can have a good skive.
  • I love that you can do it by leaving work or being at work (see: The Art of Skiving)
  • I love that it is a grown-up activity, rather than a concept borrowed from childhood. 
And I wonder: Why doesn't AmE have a good equivalent? Perhaps it doesn't fit with the Work Hard, Play Hard motto Americans are so fond of. Kate Fox (in the ever-recommended Watching the English) suggests that the more apt slogan for England is 'Work moderately, play moderately'. Having a ready vocabulary for talking about not-working (another one: having a duvet day, which came up in the discussion back here) is consistent with various things about English† culture, discussed in Fox's book (quoted, selectively, from p. 178, with linguistic commentary added in brackets/parentheses):
  • We are serious about work, but not too serious.
  • [W]e also believe it is a bit of a [BrE] fag (general English translation: drag, bother) and a nuisance [...]
  • We indignantly disapprove of those who avoid work [...] but this reflects our strict, almost religious belief in 'fairness', rather than in the belief in the sanctity of work itself (such people are seen as 'getting away with' idleness, while the rest of us, who would equally like to be idle, have to work, which is just not fair).
  • We often maintain that we would rather not work, but our personal and social identity is in fact very much bound up with work. [...]
  • We also have vestigial traces of a 'culture of amateurism', involving an instinctive mistrust of 'professionalism' and businesslike efficiency [...]
The first (reflecting the general cultural values of moderation and avoidance of earnestness) and the last are probably where the US and English cultures differ most in terms of work values, and seem to coincide well with the apparent contradiction in treating avoidance-of-work as both wrong and (in small doses) completely understandable. Especially on gorgeous days like today.

* Is this AmE? It isn't in Collins or OED (that I can find). It is on Macmillan's website, but I generally find them to be more dialectally inclusive. It means: wearing a shirt but no jacket or (BrE) jumper/(AmE) sweater, etc.

† Here I can only talk about English, not general British--you'll have to enlighten me about whether Fox's observations on the English reach any further.


  1. I'm pretty sure that "ditch" can be intransitive as well. At least, I've heard A LOT of people my age (late teens/early twenties) say something like "I'm going to ditch" or "I decided to ditch today" or just "I ditched" and clearly mean "I'm not going to school/work." I live/study and am from NYC, by the way.

  2. "ditch" was used intransitively when I was in high school in California. I don't really hear it now in a professional context. I do hear the (sometimes facetious, sometimes not) phrase "taking a mental health day", but more commonly it's just "calling in." Evocative of the legitimate excuse of "calling in sick" but... the shirking version.

    "shirtsleeves" and "shortsleeves" are synonyms to me. I thought the former was a corruption of the latter for awhile.

  3. "In his shirtsleeves" for me always described a man who had removed his suit jacket or sportcoat (and tie, maybe) and was in just his (long-sleeved dress) shirt. Don't think I could use it of a child or woman -- nor a man in a casual, shortsleeved shirt. But I'm probably hewing to an archaic usage.

    BTW, I happened to post about "skivers" (and some other BrE words) yesterday at Throw Grammar From the Train. Would love to hear your take on them if you have a moment.

  4. Jan, I think that the meaning you give for "in shirtsleeves" is still the primary one.

  5. We don't need to ditch Lynne to have real fun, I'm having real fun already.

    James (orig. BrE)

  6. Amy and Erin--Yes, I had that reaction about intransitive 'ditch' on Twitter. I'd say that that's less a true intransitive and more a use of a transitive verb with a 'null object'. The object is understood, though not said. It has to be done in a context where the object can be understood. But 'skiving' is really intransitive. It is an activity unto itself rather than an activity done to something else.

  7. My Canadian husband will talk about 'goofing off' work. Wish he'd goof off more often when the weather's like this...

  8. About the English relationship to jobs stretching further, I think the answer is in parts. I'm Welsh and think each of those statements could be applied to some of the Welsh, particularly about it being a bit of a fag.

    But I wonder too, if there's a class thing, or an occupation thing. For example, I've known a lot of miners or ex-miners more recently in different parts of Britain and they are mostly very proud of working and what they do or did. Teachers, OTOH (which is how I know the ex-miners) whatever their parent's class tend to the bit of a fag etc. although not to skiving during term time.

  9. Thanks Hadley--I wouldn't use goofing off in quite that way, but know some people do. Which reminds me...I want to do another post on expressions for 'not doing anything productive'. Lots of those in both varieties.

  10. I would call Wally (from Dilbert) a skiver. I don't think Scott Adams has ever used a word or phrase like that to describe him. Lazy, has been used, but I don't think that quite sums up the effort Wally goes to to avoid working.

    Example comic

  11. Does the expression "Poets Day" mean anything to you? I gather it stands for "Push Off Early, Tomorrow's Saturday"! (Although the version I learnt had a rather ruder word than "Push")

    I definitely understand that Grover, in her shirtsleeves, was not wearing a sweater or coat yesterday (did anybody, after about [BrE]09:00/9.00 am [AmE]?)

    In re "blow out" - I don't know that usage; when I was a child you could be "blown up" by an irate adult, as a slightly older child one was "ticked off" by said adult - I gather this means something completely different in AmE.

  12. I can't think of a term in AmE - I'd say 'blow off the rest of the day' or 'cut out early' -[upstate NY]

    I'm curious if 'mental health day' (taking off a day because you're sick, but you're not really sick, except maybe sick of work) exists in BrE.

  13. K, this is fairly random: In a grammar of Irish Gaelic for English speakers published I think in the '60s in Ireland, one of the first sentences was "He is a bold boy" and I, a Yank, had to have it explained for me: it is (was?) apparently equivalent to "He is playing hooky." So there's one more for ya.

    1. That is a translation of the Irish (Gaelic) word "dána" and that usage of "bold" is unique to Irish English, as far as I know. British people would say "naughty" and reserve "bold" for "forthright, cheeky".

    2. It can also mean "brave" in British English, as in the Christian chorus "Be bold! Be Strong! For the Lord your God is with you."

  14. To me shirtsleeves means wearing a long-sleeved shirt with the sleeves rolled up to about elbow level. In this photo I'd say David Cameron is in shirtsleeves, the nurses short sleeves.

    The local (East Yorkshire) word for bunking off was twagging, at least when I was at school 30 years ago. I wonder if there is any connection to the Australian wagging.

    I think in the original military sense AWOL is time limited. If you're still AWOL after a certain point it becomes desertion.

    Also I suspect that in any non tongue-in-cheek BrE sense your colleagues weren't skiving but were working flexibly in line with their contracts, or at least established custom and practice.

  15. "Where's Fred today?"

    "He's got skivitis, Miss"

  16. I associate shirtsleeves with "shirtsleeve order", a UK military-type expression allowing jackets not to be worn that day (usually only when the weather is very hot). See

  17. "Shirtsleeve order" in hot weather when I was in school meant no blazer or tie and sleeves rolled up to above the elbow.

    It had to be proclaimed officially by the headmaster and any intermediate stage was quite unacceptable, e.g. no blazer but tie still worn or (horrors!) blazer without a tie. Even unrolled sleeves were forbidden.

    It had to be done properly or not at all.

  18. In Australia we would keep our jackets on at that temperature but we might be tempted to 'wag' school or 'take a sickie' from work.

  19. Broughton Lass09 April, 2011 15:54

    When I was at school in Liverpool in the 70s, missing school was known as "sagging". When I moved to West Lancs, the term was "bunking" (without the "off"). Fascinating topic!

  20. I agree that my default meaning for "shirtsleeves" is a man in a dress shirt with no jacket, but if you say a child is outside in her shirtsleeves, the meaning is clear and sounds perfectly natural to me.

    For leaving work, I'd say "cut out early", which (for me) is a surprisingly non-judgmental term.

  21. How about "bail?" As in, "I just can't concentrate today. I think I'll bail early." Or, "If this report wasn't due tomorrow, I'd bail." I've never heard it used as a noun, but it seems to fulfill the other requirements...

    WR: gyram. "Well there's your trouble: you've blown a gyram."

  22. If you are looking for a word which is "specifically about slinking out of work early", I don't think skive is it.

    In my understanding and usage, skive means a short term unauthorised absence driven by laziness. But without a shadow of doubt, you can skive for a whole day without having turned up in the first place, and some of the most accomplished skivers of my school days used to do exactly that.

  23. When I was in school, if we snuck off after lunch, didn't come in or just avoided a particular class we were "Mitching." I guess this is predominantly a word used in Wales though (possibly derived from Welsh)? The (possibly mythical) Truant Officer was called the "Mitch Man".

    Skiving is one of my favorite BrE only words, and you're right, there is no equivalent in the US, at least that I've encountered. Oddly, no one has ever asked me what it means when I've used it ("I'm skiving off until after lunch.") - either it's meaning is inferred by it's usage or they take it to mean something it doesn't but that is acceptable to what they want to hear.

    Actually, I'm skiving off by writing this, I should get back to work so I can go home legitimately :)

    1. In my childhood in Ireland "mitch" was used too!

  24. Further to Broughton Lass's comment, when I was at school in West Lancs 'bunking off' was playing truant (leaving for school but not arriving) and 'skiving' playing sick (to stay home).

    Bunking off is, therefore, a worse offence than skiving.

  25. An AmE word similar would be "flake". Although I am myself from the american northeast, I have heard Californians use flake in the way you describe, as well as its other meaning, to not show up at all.

  26. @Dilsnik:

    A flake is an unreliable (or flaky) person. It's a rather negative term, although occasionally used affectionately to describe a loved one. The verb flake (usually flake out) means to act like a flake.

    I would not generally use it for someone taking an extra day off work, but for someone who, for example, missed a date--again. "Joe flaked out on me last night." On the other hand, if it's the third time this week you haven't shown up for work, your boss might think you're flaky...and fire you.

    I would usually use 'skip' or 'ditch' or maybe 'cut' for the more neutral idea being discussed here.

  27. For me it's possible to speak of skiving that isn't' skiving off.

    The latter must involve absence from the workplace. But you can skive at work — by being present but not working.

    Skivers are lazy people, but not (for me) necessarily absentees. It's the off part that denotes absence — as it does in off school, off work, off sick, a day off.

  28. I see that my 1995 edition of Soldier Talk considered skive a (British) army term. (There's now a second edition.)

    Naturally, they list AWOL. There's also

    Bunk (done a) Run away, deserted

    Skive/skiving To avoid work

  29. More from Soldier Talk:

    Flake To fall asleep or unconscious, the latter from too much alcohol

    Flaker One who does the above

    Shirt Sleeve Order The change form Winter Dress [q.v.] into summer by taking off jerseys and wearing a shirt with the sleeves rolled up above the elbow

  30. @Julie: The way I have heard flake specifically from southern Californians, (in the leave early definition), was much less harsh than the other definition, which might lead to being fired, like you said.

  31. I believe the expression "in his shirtsleeves" goes back to the days when the shirt was still regarded as an undergarment, and a waistcoat (Am E=vest) was universally worn by men. To take off the coat, allowing the sleeves of the shirt to be seen, was something you would only do in quite informal circumstances.

    Kate (Derby, UK)

  32. I (BrE) would wholly endorse all of David Crosbie's comments, especially the ones with military connotations. To me, one early meaning for 'ditch' is to crash a [military] aircraft, from which the crew would 'bail' out if they had time, ie use their parachutes. I feel that both terms have then entered the civilian world with their later meanings of 'abandon' and 'leave early' respectively.
    Just emphasise David Crosbie's point, in shirt sleeve order the sleeves are always rolled up. In fact most soldiers convert their perfectly serviceable long-sleeved shirts to short-sleeves with a pair of scissors and sew up the hem to avoid having to connstantly roll up the sleeves.
    @Shaun Clarkson. The technical difference between being AWOL and deserting is less one of duration, and more a case of intention. If a person subject to military law destroys or abandons the kit issued to him that can be evidence of an intention to desert. The situation is slighlty different if the individual is involved in operations or warned for operations.

  33. At my office (newspaper in Los Angeles), if we get to leave before the official quittin' time, it's called getting a slide. A new one on me.

    Then there's always "calling in sick" when it's really nice out and you don't want to be stuck in the office for 8 hours. Or you've had it up to here with your boss.

    When I was in high school in the mid-'70s in first Louisiana and then Oklahoma, we had Senior Ditch Day (not officially sanctioned, but ... )

  34. I am glad to know that my children are not alone in speaking Charlie and Lola British. I, myself, have developed an alliteration habit from reading Lauren Child. And after only 5 years here, I find that I have no British accent but a ton of British vocabulary. I got teased fro writing that I went to the till at Target last time I was home. Your website is a welcome find. It helped me out the other day on a pharmacy post.
    @Roger Owen Green, I don't recall ever hearing "mental health day" here in the UK, though that is a very European concept.

  35. Here's a use of playing hookey which extends the meaning in a direction that skiving could never go. The Mississippi singer Willie Blackwell sang in his 1941 recording of Four O'Clock Flower Blues

    Four o'clock flowers bloom in the evening, and close in the afternoon
    They are only a summer beauty — so as my little Betty June

    If you would only stop playing hookey, and be a little more true
    All the love I have to spare, Betty June, would be for you

    I'm a hard-workin' man, and I never get my lovin' soon
    And when I thinks about it in the mornin' it makes my heart ache in the afternoon

    My job calls me at six p.m. and I don't get home till day
    My friends say she have done — Betty June don't make me feel that way

    I'm not jealous but I'm superstitious, the most workin' men's that way
    And if I find you playin' hookey, Betty June — What a day, what a day

  36. Re: shirtsleeves, the usual image I associate with this is the man who has taken off his jacket and rolled up his shirtsleeves as a signal that he is really getting down to work.

  37. A bit late, but I just want to support David Crosbie's differentiation of 'skive' and 'skive off'...

  38. Thanks, Lynne. A nice trip down memory lane, thinking about the school days.

    In 70s/80s Kent it was known as "to bunk off", "doing a bunk", "bunked-off", "bunking-off", "to skive", "skiving", "skiver". I didn't miss a day of school so cannot say I partook in any of these.

  39. As an American living here I find 'skive' a very useful word. I think I would have once said 'skip work'. My family members who work in the US prison system use 'bang in' for calling in sick when you aren't really, i.e. skiving.

  40. Chiming in just to say that, like Sir Watkin, I associate shirtsleeves with 'Shirtsleeve order' at school - both boys and girls wore long sleeved shirts, ties and blazers, and only on extremely hot days would the order go out.

    It was blissful coolness: remove the blazer, remove the tie, roll up the sleeves above the elbow. No half-measures or non-compliance allowed!

    Should probably note as well that this was only about ten years ago for me, so it's not an ancient usage (though the school was a bit devoted to its traditions).

    It really confused me in this post - I had no idea that it could mean 'short sleeves' until I read the comments, and was wondering why a small child would be wearing a shirt and tie.

  41. @Ruth--just to be clear: there's only one person here who seems to have thought it mean 'short sleeves'. I don't think that's a widespread meaning. I just used it to mean 'no jacket, just sleeves'. If I'd meant short sleeves, I'd've said that.

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  43. Lynne

    What was slightly confusing in your first definition of in her shirtsleeves was the tag 'or (BrE) jumper/(AmE) sweater'.

    For me, it just means 'without a jacket' or 'without a blazer', and the tenor of some of the replies suggests that many Brits also associate it with shirtsleeve order in its army sense. Smart, but a step down in formality. If what you've removed is a jumper/sweater/woolly/cardigan/tracksuit top, then you haven't changed the formality of dress at all.

    If you hadn't used the expression dragged herself around I'd be tempted to picture young Grover striding purposefully about, compensating for lost effect — having discarded the power-shouldered top half of her little business suit.

    Of course, it works the other way. The old stereotype of the working man at the seaside with a knotted handkerchief of his head and in his shirtsleeves was also a contrast of formality — He was dressed too formally for the beach.

    With cloth caps rather than knotted handkerchiefs, that how most of Madness were dressed for most of the video in your in the middle of our street/block thread. Some wore short-sleeved pullovers, but the absence of jackets made it count as in their shirtsleeves. Part of the humour was that they were overdressed for the pool and the squash court and way too informally dressed for the board room.

  44. I put in the bit about jumpers/sweaters because if someone who wasn't familiar with the phrase read the definition with just 'without a jacket', they could have imagined 'something else instead of jacket'. Or, at least, that was my reasoning...

  45. Over 40 years ago, as a student, I had a job in a leather factory, and was put one day on a machine which shaved a camber on half-soles so that they could be attached to the shoe. This was known as 'skiving'. The verb is in the full OED. I wondered at the time whether this was where the more familiar meaning came from, as it was a fairly easy job, a cushy billet.

    Ditch used intransitively still to me means to land a 'plane 'in the drink', so that using it in some other way is quite normal but remains a metaphor with a resonance of that meaning.

    I've not heard 'mental health day'. Is that the same as a 'sickie'. The two essentials of a sickie are that you are claiming to be ill enough not to go to work, but aren't.

  46. @Dru, a mental health day is slightly different than a sickie. You take a day off for preventative maintenance of your mental health, though, yeah, as a practical matter, you call in sick when you aren't.

  47. "Wag"/"wagging" has always interested me. As an Australian I've used it all my life to mean truancy, thinking it was a unique Australian slang expression. Then I read 'Dombey and Son' by Charles Dickens which includes the following exchange:

    "... My misfortunes all began in wagging, Sir; but what could I do, exceptin' wag?'

    'Excepting what?' said Mr Carker.

    'Wag, Sir. Wagging from school.'

    'Do you mean pretending to go there, and not going?' said Mr Carker.

    'Yes, Sir, that's wagging, Sir,' returned the quondam Grinder, much affected. 'I was chivied through the streets, Sir, when I went there, and pounded when I got there. So I wagged, and hid myself, and that began it.' "

    This was written in 1846-48 so I assume the slang was transported to Australia with the convicts.

  48. Hello all! I've been away so long- I'm terribly behind, but thought I'd chip in quickly on this one.

    You'll be pleased to know that both bunking and bunking off are alive and well in this Essex comprehensive system [AmE public school?] and was prolific during my time there in the late 90s/early 00s.

    Here's another one for you- you don't hear it terribly often, but I hgave encountered it all over South/East England 'Early swerve' as in:

    "Have you seen Mike?"
    "No, he took an early swerve."

    To mean leaving one's place of work before one's contracted hours have expired.

  49. I don't take sickies, I throw them (as in "I threw a sickie"). I think that might be Liverpudlian.

    (Broughton Lass - did you by any chance go to Broughton Hall in the 70s? So did I.)

  50. An Austrailian colleague used the phrase "chuck a sickie", which described a healthy person calling in sick in order to take the day off. I've never heard that in any other dialect, but would love to have is cross borders.

  51. I have it on good authority that in Canada taking the day off work for no good reason is called 'f***ing the dog'.

  52. "I love that you can do it ..."
    Where did that construction originate?

  53. (25-year-old Californian)

    I would say playing hooky can definitely be for work and is a decent analogue for skiving. A Google search shows over 250,000 hits for "playing hooky from work" (but sans quotes). Then appr. 650,000 for "playing hooky from school". Similar searches for 'skiving' show a stronger correlation for work than school, but I still say it's a good AmE alternative! I would also use ditching. Cutting or skipping definitely refer to school rather than work.

    Also, I'd never heard of shirtsleeves. I don't know if that's my youth or my rarely-need-a-sweater home speaking. ;)

  54. You here too, Broughton Lass?

    Yes, 'sagging' in Liverpool, and 'twagging' actoss the country in Hull, where it was in use both by the children at the school where I taught (but I'm much better now thank you) and by my colleagues at the printing company where I cut my computer teeth.

  55. Hey, I know this is year too late, but there IS a perfect American equivalent to skive, but it is no longer in use. That word is slough. I think it's heyday was the 1800s. Nowadays we use bail.

  56. Ex military personnel that I know (Both Brits and Yanks) often use AWOL (Absent Without Leave) when they have not turned up for work but as you said earlier skived is usually sneaking off early without permission. I have often heard the phrase "skipped off early" which although not identical to skived of early its fairly close,

  57. BrE. Scot, mid 60s. As kids, we would plunk school, and the truant officer was the “plunky man”. This was confusing and a bit perturbing. For very young children, “ to plunk” was used more often than “to poo”.


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