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SCULL or SKULL

Despite different spellings, scull and skull can express the same meaning when – as verbs – they take a beer or two as their grammatical object. They are variants of skol, the Scandinavian toast used by English-speaking drinkers everywhere who indulge in skolling. Only in Australia does skol become a transitive verb (as in skol a beer) with its pronunciation adjusted so that it sounds more like scull/skull, though neither of those is related to the meaning of skol. The use of scull is explained by reference to student drinking rituals that challenge participants to down a bottle or can of beer in one draught, like the long stroke used in sculling a boat. A different explanation is given by the Minnesota Vikings, an American football team, which uses skol as its battle cry – supposedly like their eponymous heroes – to signify they hope to drink from the skulls of their victims at the end of the day. But the most likely source can be found in a Scottish homonym of skull (“cranium”) that refers to a drinking bowl, which found its way into early modern English. Since the Scandinavian skol also meant “a drinking bowl” (= skål in modern Swedish), there’s no need to invoke badass drinking customs to account for the spelling. But then, why waste a good story?

Written by emeritus professor Pam Peters, researcher with Macquarie University’s Centre for Language Sciences.

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