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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).

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    "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, 2015 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, 2015 at 15:09

7 Answers 7

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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)
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  • 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, 2015 at 15:00
  • @hoc_age - Fixed!!
    – user66974
    Mar 3, 2015 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, 2016 at 23:36
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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.

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I was told in the 80's by a Vietnam Veteran that the definition was derived from the American Helicopter crews greasing the skids of helicopters to prevent people, (AVRN Forces and civilians) from trying to hitch rides. This can be confirmed in the book, The Vietnam War: The History of America's Conflict in Southeast Asia By General William C. Westmoreland. This preparation by the Helicopter Crews was to ensure the evacuation operations would "run smoothly".

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  • A nice reference, but somewhat later than the other origins suggested hereabouts. Sep 7, 2023 at 20:54
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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 . . .

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Searches of various book and newspaper databases turn up several matches for "grease the skids" from before 1885. Here they are, in chronological order.

From "Not So Dumb as He Looked," in the Lancaster [Pennsylvania] Intelligencer (April 12, 1859) [combined snippets]:

For some time past there has been located amongst us a little German man, named John Hemans, a carpenter and builder, who recently went it strong in the contract line. On the 1st inst., he made a profession of clearing up matters but could not obtain a settlement from his debtors, until he produced the receipts of his workmen and his creditors, who otherwise might lien the buildings he had worked on. Accordingly to grease the skids right by which he meant to slope [that is, run away], he obtained from those creditors acknowledgments that he had paid them, giving them "due" bills for the same and making them believe that this was the only way he could obtain the money to pay them with; but upon their coming together according to appointment, to receive their dues, they suddenly discovered that some eight or nine persons had been "sold."

This is an interesting instance, in pat because it is several years older than the next-earliest example I found, in part because the "little German man" seems to be using the expression metaphorically, and third because it is unclear what activity literal skid greasing would have referred to at this time (1859)and place (southeastern Pennsylvania).

From "Information for Officers on the Proper Stowage of Cargoes," in The California Nautical Magazine (January 1863):

Q. In using screws in a hold is it necessary to use oil?

A. It is thought to be necessary, but it should never be permitted.

Q. Why not?

A. Because oil or grease of any kind, especially linseed oil, will ignite cotton, jute or hemp under a pressure, by spontaneous combustion.

Q. What would you use instead of oil?

A. Soft soap.

Q. When a tier of bales of cotton or wool are laid, how would you put another bale into the same tier?

A. By entering two planks, called skids, between two of them, and forcing the open at the outer ends far enough to receive the extra bale, which is then forced in by screws.

Q. Would you grease the skids or not?

A. Grease or oil should not be used ; soft soap might be used to advantage if the pressure be great.

This is the "nautical" instance cited in user66974's answer, although from a source a couple of years older than J.H. Bell in 1865.

From "The Qualifications and Employment of Teachers," in Report of the School Superintendent of the Territory of Washington, for the Year Ending November 1875 (1875):

There can be nothing so injurious to a school as the employment of a poor teacher. And I regret to say, that the majority of our school directors, pursue a policy, calculated to drive every good teacher from the Territory. Applications have frequently been made to me for teachers, and it is seldom that the wages offered, have equaled the wages lumbermen pay boys for greasing the skids over which logs are drawn to the water.

This 1875 instance is most notable as the earliest one that clearly refers to the timber industry. The next two matches likewise involve logging.

From "In British Columbia," in the [Melbourne, Victoria] Argus (April 8, 1882):

Every now and then we pass little sheds where drums of oil are hung to grease the skids as the logs are brought down. This September noonday sun is hot enough. "Courage! we shall be there shortly," says the captain, "the camp is just ahead." We arrive there "just ahead" to find a cleared open space, the ruins of a habitation, the grain cropping up amongst the weeds around, showing that there was cultivation here once. Then my nautical cicerone and deceiver acknowledges that he has not been here for some years ; the old camp was here, but must have been moved farther ahead.

From Olive Rand, A Vacation Excursion: From Massachusetts Bay to Puget Sound (1884):

The daily capacity of all the leading mills on Puget Sound is 1,645,000 feet, and the lumber is shipped to China, Japan, Australia, and South America, as well as to American ports. Some of the mills are supplied with electric lights so as to work continuously when the demand is brisk. A little idea of the immensity of this lumber industry is conveyed in the statement that one logger paid $1,500 for tallow to grease the skids used one year in hauling five million feet of logs worth $35,000.


Discussion

The origin of "grease the skids" is unclear from the few instances of the expression that I found from the period 1859–1884. The earliest of these matches provides no context for the origin of the expression as a literal rather than figurative expression—because it uses the phrase figuratively.

The 1863 instance refers to greasing skids that are used to load bales of wool or cotton on a ship. But the 1875, 1882, and 1884 examples all involve skids used for moving felled trees; moreover, all three are set in Washington state or in British Columbia, right across the border from Washington. Subsequent nineteenth-century literal instances of "grease the skids" skew heavily toward lumber and timber contexts.

One point worth noting is that, when used figuratively, "grease the skids" seems to mean much the same thing as the much older expression "grease the wheels." Here is the entry for the latter term in Christine Ammer, The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, second edition (2013):

grease the wheels Also, oil the wheels. Make things run smoothly,as in You can count on Ben to grease the wheels so we'll be waited on promptly. This metaphoric expression transfers literal lubrication to figurative. {Mid-1600s}

This seems to be essentially the same meaning that "grease the skids" carries in this early instance from "The 'Currency Commission': Incompetency of the Whole McKinley Party," in the Jasper [Indiana] Weekly Courier (June 4, 1897):

The inherent weakness of the republican position is further emphasized by their effort to evade responsibility. They dare not bring the question to an issue in congress, and so they intend to hide behind the proposition to form a currency commission. The "currency commission" plan is a fraud and a sham in conception, and purpose. It is nothing more than a plan to delude the people while the gold syndicate which controls the republican leaders grease the skids for the final slide to the gold standard.

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In 1652, there is a reference to greasing the skid marks in the shorts. Related to launching ships, and gaining mechanical advantage in general, this may be the earliest reference that I can find. I agree that relative pressure and the best lubricant (e.g. grease vs. soap) are extremely relevant in mechanical advantage to perform "useful work".

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    Please visit the Help Center to investigate the requirements for a good answer. Have you a valid reference to give a quote from? It should be attributed (morally correct, and helps avoid lawsuits) and linked (so others here can see what else the reference mentions). Jan 8, 2020 at 17:17
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I wonder if this has something to do with commercial lumber and whaling. When I was visiting Seattle, a friend showed me the original "skid row," where cut trees were slid down the slope towards the water so they could be loaded on ships. The logs would not slide on the ground, so big slabs of whale fat were cut and laid upside down so the logs would slide down the hill. Since this area attracted hard drinking roughnecks and similar types of people, the phrase skid row became synonymous with the rough part of town.

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