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There was the following sentence in the article written by Maureen Dowd titled, “Where the boys aren’t,” sketching the life of Dolores Hart in New York Times February 19 issue:

“I had no idea that it was going to mean singing seven times a day, working in the garden, 10 people in one bathroom, the sternness.” She compared it to being skinned alive.”

I thought “being skinned alive” means “live like a stuffed bird (or a living corpse)” from the context of the above sentence, and checked Cambridge, Oxford, Merriam-Webster online dictionaries for confirmation. None of them registers the word, “(be) skinned alive.”

Although the Free Dictionary and Online slang Dictionary provide with similar definitions of “skinned alive” as “to be very angry with someone; to scold someone severely. - FD” and “to reprimand severely – OSD,” I don’t think both applies to the above Dowd’s quote.

What does “being skinned alive” here mean? Is “skinned alive” a well-established phrase, though I can’t find the phrase in reputed dictionaries?

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Robusto-san. I’m still enjoying the Forum thanks to your early time encouragement. So, the difinitions of both Free Dictionary and Online Slang Dictionary were right? –  Yoichi Oishi Feb 19 '12 at 6:16
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3 Answers

up vote 3 down vote accepted

It's quite a common expression

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where it's invariably used as an exaggerated threat - "I'll skin you alive if I catch you doing that!". Metaphorically it can be used to simply mean "I'll be very angry if you do that!"

To skin [a person, or animal, normally dead] means to flay: strip off the skin or outer covering.

I've never heard anyone use it in OP's context. To say something is "like being skinned alive" doesn't make a lot of sense; you couldn't possibly know what it was like unless you actually had been skinned alive. I'm not a doctor, but it seems unlikely you'd survive, and be able to compare subsequent experiences to it. Maureen Dowd is obviously quite imaginative.

As @tchrist says, flaying of humans has a long history. Live people might be flayed as execution, and flaying after death occurred in various contexts - one of the more bizarre examples being a pair of "necropants" in the Icelandic Museum of Witchcraft.

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It refers to being flayed alive, which was a particularly gruesome mechanism of torture and execution.

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Although the others have noted how grisly the phrase sounds, it is often used in a relatively light, hyperbolic manner:

If my wife catches me betting at the racetrack again, she'll skin me alive.

All right, that's it! If you kids don't get your butts in bed by the time I count to ten, I'm going to skin you alive.

Here the threat of dire consequences hangs in the air, but it is nothing even approaching the literal horror of being skinned alive. I would venture to say that it is this figurative sense that makes up the bulk of the usage.

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Robusto-san. I’m still enjoying the Forum thanks to your early time encouragement. So, the difinitions of both Free Dictionary and Online Slang Dictionary were right? –  Yoichi Oishi Feb 19 '12 at 6:18
    
@Oishi-san: Absolutely. –  Robusto Feb 19 '12 at 13:00
    
I think it's the gruesomeness of the expression is exactly what constrains it to casual and facetious usages. If someone said, "When the police catch that serial rapist, they're going to skin him alive", there would be the small but uncomfortably possibility that the expression might be meant literally. –  Malvolio May 6 '12 at 19:05
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