What is the origin or derivation of the phrase "greasing the skids?"

The phrase connotes preparation, in such a way as to make the subsequent activities easier. Definitions are available various places (e.g., The Free Dictionary, Askville). The latter suggests a derivation (or derivative) "skid row" without citation.

I had always assumed the derivation of "skid" (that which is being "greased" in this sense) was a rather literal description of lubricating pallets or skids for moving or sliding them, or a skidder machine, but I can't find any good reference.

This blog suggests two other derivations that are somewhat similar: greasing the parts of a winch system over which items would be dragged, or in shipbuilding to grease the parts along which a newly-constructed ship would slide into the water.

Other phrases are at least superficially similar but perhaps unrelated, such as greasing the pan (but seeming to connote a specific, necessary prerequisite; in fact a comment on this answer also refers to "skid greasing"), or greasing palms (connoting bribery).

  • "Skids" are the ski-like planks on the bottom of a heavy pallet. Obviously, greasing those would make pushing/dragging the pallet easier. No doubt the general concept applies in many different contexts, and there's no reason to expect to find a unique "origin". – Hot Licks Mar 3 '15 at 13:59
  • @HotLicks - Those pallet (or "skid", see link) planks are certainly one possible derivation of "skid" in this sense (and I explicitly noted similar uses above). However, I couldn't find any reference to that derivation, hence the question. I don't doubt that there might be multiple origins or derivations; indeed, I listed several possibilities above, but I was seeking more authoritative references! – hoc_age Mar 3 '15 at 15:09

According to the following source the meaning has a literal origin, from the supports (skids) that were greased to help with very heavy weights:

To grease the skids:

  • is a phrase which means "to facilitate". Says You! claims that it arose in shipbuilding, where skids were used to facilitate getting the huge ships of the day into the water from the shipyards.

    • In fact, Richard Sher, the host of Says You!, read a quotation from May 31, 1911 referring to the amount of tallow used to grease the skids that took the Titanic into the water for the first time. The phrase is not in the OED, but we found a web site of Titanic trivia which notes that 23 tons of tallow and soft soap were used during the launch process.
      So it appears that the phrase may have been used in the shipbuilding industry. However, we also found quotations from the logging industry, the earliest in the Dubuque Daily Telegraph of October 2, 1901, suggesting that the skids used to move logs are more likely the source of the phrase:

    • "The bears had been causing trouble by eating the tallow used to grease the "skids" forming the roads over which the logs are hauled to the river."

enter image description here

  • Note that the term skid road comes from the logging skids, as well, and, slightly corrupted, gave birth to the term skid row. (Note also that bears eating skid grease and, in the process, tearing up the skid roads, was apparently a common problem in the late 19th and early 20th centuries!)

Ngram: grease the skids, greasing the skids.

Google books suggest that early usages of the expression were from a nautical context:

  • Would you grease the skids or not ? Grease or oil should not be used; soft soap might be used to advantage if the pressure is great. What is it necessary to observe in laying a ground tier of bales or cases? 1st, That there is sufficient dunnage, ...(The nautical instructor -- J H. Bell 1865)
  • Thanks for the answer. Your blockquotes and indentation make parsing difficult; I think you have a cut-and-paste error: "claims that it arose inThe man [...] shipbuilding" -- would you like to fix-up the markup? If you prefer, I can suggest an edit. – hoc_age Mar 3 '15 at 15:00
  • @hoc_age - Fixed!! – user66974 Mar 3 '15 at 15:15
  • A little more at en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Corduroy_road (which is what your photo shows) "In the Pacific Northwest corduroy roads built of huge logs without the sand covering were the mainstay of local logging practices and were called skid roads. Two of these, respectively on the outskirts of the milltowns of Seattle and Vancouver, which had become concentrations of bars and working man's slum, were the origin of the more widespread meaning of "skid road" and its derivative skid row, referring to a poor area. – Icy Jul 9 '16 at 23:36

My father worked at California Shipbuilding in San Pedro California during World War II. I still have the sign that was on the three shelf cabinet that he was issued to store the three skids assigned to him and to be used on the ways at the launch of a "Liberty Ship." The sign is a piece of wood, about 13"x 10" and 1/2" deep. It reads "Crew No. 2, Barstow Skids 6-7-8.


An ngram search reveals the usage of the phrase grease the skids in the idiomatic sense at least as early as 1902 in More Ex-Tank Tales by Clarence Louis Cullen, a collection of sketches about alcoholics

. . . once more suddenly rising with the determined air of a man who intends to grease the skids and get going right . . .

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.