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I am reading The Last of the Mohicans. A group gets lost on their way to Fort Edward. Then they meet Hawkeye the scout, who accuses their guide of misleading them. Hawkeye believes the guide's heritage confirms this when he says:

"A Huron!" repeated the sturdy scout, once more shaking his head in open distrust; "they are a thievish race, nor do I care by whom they are adopted; you can never make anything of them but skulks and vagabonds. Since you trusted yourself to the care of one of that nation, I only wonder that you have not fallen in with more."

I cannot find a definition of skull to match this usage. A definition I've found in dictionaries that is closer to Hawkeye's intent than the common meaning of "bone of the head" is this one from MacMillan Dictionary:

INFORMAL a person's head, or their mind

Especially if used in this derogatory sense cited from CED:

derogatory often the head regarded as the mind or intelligence: to have a dense skull

Hawkeye is not shy with his criticisms of this tribe. In the above passage alone he accuses them of thievery, aimlessness, and treachery. It is possible that by using skulls he is insulting their intelligence too. But this argument seems weak to me, because the traps and ambushes Hawkeye fears the guide leading the group into require some sophistication to execute.

A supposition I think has more merit is that this skull is related to skulduggery, which MW defines as

underhanded or unscrupulous behavior; also: a devious device or trick

The skul in skulduggery ("apparently an alteration of Scottish sculdudrie 'adultery' (1713), sculduddery 'bawdry, obscenity' (1821), a euphemism of uncertain origin") appears to have a different etymology than the bone-related skull ("probably from Old Norse skalli 'a bald head, skull,'..."). But I cannot find any sources to confirm the connection of Hawkeye's use of skulls to this skul.

What does Hawkeye mean by calling the tribe "skulls"?

Edit: As Leon Conrad points out below, I misquoted the Google book I cited. The correct word is skulks. (I have changed it above.) I have e-mailed the source I read from about the typo.

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closed as off-topic by Canis Lupus, dingo_dan, Robusto, TimLymington, Mitch Mar 17 at 23:08

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I wonder if this is an over-read. Maybe he literally means they should be killed for their skulls. Or people who skull people (in the same manner as braiding people). –  David M Mar 17 at 17:28
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That should have said braining. Stupid autocorrect. –  David M Mar 17 at 18:14
    
I agree with @DavidM. I believe he's saying the only thing to do with a Huron is to run them out of their homes (make them homeless, vagabonds) or killing them (hit them over the head with a club.) –  JSanchez Mar 17 at 18:29
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This question appears to be off-topic because it is is the result of a typo or mis-reading of the original text, which was cited in the OPs question. –  Canis Lupus Mar 17 at 19:39
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@DavidM The typo still invalidates the question, unless he wants to correct it in the title - which doesn't seem to be the case as the accepted answer is just pointing it out. –  Alok Mar 17 at 22:06

2 Answers 2

up vote 11 down vote accepted

The original is 'skulks', not 'skulls'.

The meaning intended here is a person who shirks their duty.

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2  
Good find. And it was right in the OP's original citation. –  Canis Lupus Mar 17 at 19:37
    
Excellent catch! My apologies. I was reading from another source and did not notice the difference in the two texts. This makes a lot more sense, because Hawkeye does refer to some who hide in the forest as "skulkers" (p 35). Thanks! –  dingo_dan Mar 17 at 19:51
    
@dingo_dan Do not feel bad! Take a look at my answer below! –  David M Mar 17 at 21:04

I'm 100% certain that skulks the proper original. But, I wanted to show everyone just how common this typo is!

Click to enlarge:

6 Pages of results (verbatim search)

enter image description here

vs

7 Pages of results (verbatim search)

enter image description here

It seems that this is one of those ebooks that has been public domain for a long time, and the same typography error has blazed a trail all the way across the internet!

It just goes to show you... When in doubt, google the words that make sense in context, too.

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a better crop job could be nice –  user1306322 Mar 17 at 20:59
    
@user1306322 There you go. Better cropped. –  David M Mar 17 at 21:02
    
Not only that, but the incorrect "skulls and vagabonds" is recommended when we search the correct "skulks and vagabonds," but not the other way around! (Probably because between the two phrases, it's the more confusing and thus the more Google-searched.) This typo shall not plague the literary world any longer! :) –  dingo_dan Mar 17 at 21:14
    
@dingo_dan That may be because I had searched it right before the correct version. I'm not sure how El Goog works those suggestions. –  David M Mar 17 at 21:15
    
Hm, I did that too. In any case, I will be sure to check if a curious phrase is a typo before I research it any further. And putting images of the text from Google books into my posts when possible would help prevent transcription errors. Thanks, guys! Trying to reason out "Why skulls?" on my own would have driven me crazy. –  dingo_dan Mar 17 at 21:25

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