Merriam Webster defines the word as:

  1. a : DEFEAT
    b : to prevent entirely from scoring or succeeding : SHUT OUT
  2. : to fail to pay; also : CHEAT

While the origin of the noun form of the word is provided, there is no mention of the origin of the verb except that it has been around since 1843. Online Etymology Dictionary mentions “skunk” as a noun but not as a verb.

skunk (n) refers to – according to Merriam Webster- either:

  1. a : any of various common omnivorous black-and-white New World mammals (esp. genus Mephitis) of the weasel family that have a pair of perineal glands from which a secretion of pungent and offensive odor is ejected
    b : the fur of a skunk


  1. an obnoxious or disliked person

Origin (Online Etymology Dictionary):

1630s, squunck, from a southern New England Algonquian language (probably Abenaki) *seganku, from Proto-Algonquian */šeka:kwa/, from */šek-/ "to urinate" + */-a:kw/ "fox." As an insult, attested from 1841. Skunk cabbage is attested from 1751; earlier was skunkweed (1738)

How about the origin of the verb and is it related to that of the noun?

  • According to ODO and Collins, it's use as a verb is only in North American informal usage. I wasn't aware it could be a verb.
    – TrevorD
    Commented Jun 16, 2013 at 23:20
  • American humorist Josh Billings has this explanation (from Josh Billings, Hiz Sayings, 1868): "The term 'skunked,' which we often hear applied tew them that gits beat, wuz discovered in this wa: a Radikal and a Conservatiff, went out hunting skunks. The Radikal discovered one at sum distance off and without trieing tew git nearer, drew up his musquet, and shot him ded. The Consarvatiff undertook tew ketch his skunk alive, and the konsequents waz, he got—skunked."
    – Sven Yargs
    Commented Jun 19, 2013 at 1:15

1 Answer 1


OED 1 gives the earliest use in an intransitive sense 1. a. ‘To fail. rare.’

1831 Constellation 1 Jan 54/1 It is a common expression in New-England, to say of a person, who does not get a king in the game of chequers, he skunked.

The earliest transitive use given in OED use is 1. b. ‘to defeat or get the better of; to inflict defeat upon.’

In some quots. in passive = ‘defeated without making a score’

OED 1 gives citations with this sense from the 1840s referring to card games, games of chance, and politics.

Alongside this, however, there are transitive uses with the sense cheat. OED 1 gives two:

2. a. To fail to pay (a bill or creditor)
1851 B.H. HallCollege Wods 284 Skunk, at Princeton College, to fail to pay a debt; used actively; e.g., to skunk a tailor, i.e., not to pay him.

b. To cheat; in pass., to be cheated out of
1890 C. W. Haskins Argonauts of Calif. xviii, 250, I got skunked once out of a good claim.

The last construction, however, is at least a hundred years older than the OED citation; the Worcester [Massachusetts] Magazine, III, xii (1787) ,151 has

… the heathen poets firſt invented theſe ſtories, and the heathen prieſts ſtole them from them, as badgers dig holes for themſelves, and afterwards are ſkunked out of them, by the foxes.

What exactly this means is suggested in this, from Mass Audubon, the website of the Massachusetts Audubon Society:

The skunk may excavate its own burrow [...] More often a skunk will take over the burrows of woodchucks or foxes.

So it appears that ‘cheat out of’ is the original sense, and that the sense ‘utterly defeat’ is derivative.

All the earliest citations are from, or attributed to, New England. All except the first are still current.

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