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The idiomatic expression to have "skin in the game" means to have incurred monetary risk by being involved in achieving a goal.

  • In the phrase, "skin" is a synecdoche for the person involved, and "game" is the metaphor for actions on the field of play under discussion. The aphorism is particularly common in business, finance, and gambling, and is also used in politics. (Wikipedia)

Despite its relatively recent usage as shown in Ngram, its origin is still unclear.

One often cited assumption refers to a citation by Warren Buffett:

  • The expression has been attributed to Warren Buffett since in Buffett's first fund he raised $105,000 from 11 doctors, himself placing a token sum of $100.00 as his "skin in the game"

But famous columnist William Safire showed that this common assumption is not true, though he could not offer an alternative one:

  • The late columnist William Safire sought the origin of the phrase and didn’t resolve the issue, but he did dispel one widely held explanation. It was not the billionaire investor Warren Buffett who coined the phrase. (www.deliberatelyconsidered.com)

Another source that may have inspired its existance is Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, but still, there is no clear evidence of it:

  • Another possible explanation is that the phrase draws its origins from William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, in which the antagonist, Shylock, stipulates that the protagonist, Antonio, must promise a pound of his own flesh as collateral, to be exacted by Shylock in the event that Antonio's friend Bassanio defaults on the loan to which Antonio is guarantor. (Wikipedia)

Usage examples are from the late 1990s as the following one from Selling to major accounts 1999, but the expression is earlier than that:

  • The best executive sponsors are people who have "skin in the game."

Questions:

  • Who actually coined this now commonly used expression?

  • What is the earliest usage available?

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    @Mari-LouA - it is not used only in finance, it is becoming common also in politics an shown here: .deliberatelyconsidered.com/2011/06/skin-in-the-game - and here : guardianlv.com/2014/05/skin-in-the-game - As for the italian equivalent, probably "carne al fuoco" comes close to it. – user66974 Apr 14 '17 at 6:57
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    An equivalent may be "not having a dog in that hunt"--english.stackexchange.com/questions/224995/… – Xanne Apr 14 '17 at 7:24
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    @Mari-LouA, It may not be /very/ common across the Anglophone world, but it's not just American English. It appears in British papers, at least, at about the same frequency as American ones. To the order of magnitude, anyway. – MDHunter Apr 14 '17 at 12:04
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    @Xanne, not equivalent... at least not for me. Someone's not having a dog in the hunt/fight suggests their indifference to the outcome. Yes, they're not invested in the activity --- but, it's because they don't care who wins either way. By contrast, someone's not having skin in the game carries the implication that the outcome actually is (or should be) important. Their interest is somehow aligned with the outcome and being invested, via a number of possible mechanisms, effects a "better" normative alignment. – MDHunter Apr 14 '17 at 12:17
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    Is the some reference to the Bible, Job 2:3-5:? King James Version, "3. And the LORD said unto Satan, Hast thou considered my servant Job, that there is none like him in the earth, a perfect and an upright man, one that feareth God, and escheweth evil? and still he holdeth fast his integrity, although thou movedst me against him, to destroy him without cause. 4. And Satan answered the LORD, and said, Skin for skin, yea, all that a man hath will he give for his life. 5. But put forth thine hand now, and touch his bone and his flesh, and he will curse thee to thy face." – alephzero Apr 14 '17 at 20:13
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The earliest usage I can track down is a quote in a 1986 Wall Street Journal article, by an IBM executive (just a few months earlier than the quote @Xanne found in the NYT, also about IBM)1:

[Events for non-marketing reps] aren't as lavish, and fewer people are invited. "That's mainly because (others) don't have their skin in the game the way the marketing rep does," says Doris Isaacs, an IBM director of systems engineering. (Dennis Kneale, "Working at IBM: Intense Loyalty in a Rigid Culture," Wall Street Journal (1923 - Current file), Apr 07, 1986, pp. 27, ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The Wall Street Journal.)

This would seem to have been a not-unknown phrase in the computer world; in 1997 we have:

In the old days, a scant decade ago, systems integrators would characterize their stake in a large deal by proudly claiming they had "skin in the game." By this they meant they had made a sizable investment: buying the customer's assets, transferring the customer's employees to its staff, maybe transferring software licenses onto their books and so on. (Susan Scrupski, "Turning Contracts into Partnerships," Computerworld, July 28, 1997. LexisNexis Academic.)

The phrase also probably got a boost in the mid-nineties from maverick billionaire presidential candidate Ross Perot, who used the phrase several times during his campaign. For example:

In the C-SPAN interview, Perot said he would spend $50 million to $100 million of his own money on a campaign, although he said he would encourage his supporters to contribute $5 "because I want them to have skin in the game." (Mark Stencel, "Perot Weighs Candidacy; Presidential Race Entry is `Up to the People'," The Washington Post (pre-1997 Fulltext), Mar 23, 1992, pp. a01, US Newsstream.)

Another contemporary source quotes Perot:

[I]f he runs, Perot says, he would invite "ordinary folks" to put $5 each into it, so they would have a stake. . . . "I proposed that we have a war tax before we go into this so that all of us had 'skin' in the game," he says. "Isn't it bizarre that the only heroes from this [first Iraq] war are generals and politicians?" (John Dillin, "Possible Presidential Bid by Perot Is Seen Posing a Threat to Bush," Christian Science Monitor, March 24, 1992.)

And during his 1996 campaign:

Rather than spend more money of his own, Perot has decided to take the taxpayer money, explaining, as he put it on "Good Morning America" yesterday, that he wanted to "make sure the American people get involved" in his campaign effort. Speaking on CNN's "Larry King Live" Sunday night, Perot said, "In talking to all our members, they wanted to put some skin in the game. We're asking them to make small contributions." (Ruth Marcus & Donald P. Baker, "CHANGE WORTH $29.2 MILLION FOR PEROT," Washington Post, August 20, 1996.)

Perhaps significantly, Perot got his start as one of those high stress, high pay IBM salespeople, and went on to make his fortune in the computing industry (Wikipedia).

From there, usage takes off quickly, as attested in the Ngram cited in the question.

But where did the phrase actually come from? The Perot quotes are strongly suggestive of a connection between money, something like an ante, and "skin". I suspect that the phrase may have originated with gambling, and the slang use of the word skin to mean money or (more specifically) US dollars. From the OED:

  1. fig. U.S. slang. A dollar; = frogskin n. (a) at frog *n.*1 and adj. Compounds 2a. ("skin, n." OED Online. Oxford University Press, March 2017. Definition 6).

This usage for skin is attested from 1834 through 1997. That last quote is in reference to golf, where the term is still used to refer to a betting version of the game. From Golf for Dummies:

Skins: Players bet a certain amount each hole – a skin – but if two tie, all tie, and the money is added to the pot for the next hole. If a foursome plays skins and no golfer beats the other three on any hole, you can wind up with five or six or even more skins riding on a later hole. To win at skins, relax early in the round and focus on playing your best when the chips (well, skins) are down. And don't be afraid to take risks. Remember, you have to win the hole outright to claim the skins. (Gary McCord, Golf for Dummies, 2012.)

Thus if a player hasn't anted up—bet a "skin"—in the golf game, he or she may not be as concerned about playing their very best.

One more circumstantial piece of evidence: Golf was at one time part of the insular IBM culture described in that first article.

By the late 1960s, IBM had become the apex of how companies treated workers and thought of their roles in society. Its culture was called "cradle to grave," meaning if you got in, they’d take care of you. There were lavish carnivals for workers and their families. Around the country, there were country clubs and golf courses where workers at all levels could play for virtually nothing. Casperkill Golf Club in Poughkeepsie, New York, is the site of a former IBM country club. IBM sold it more than a decade ago, and you can still find retired IBMers grumbling about the changes. (Dan Bobkoff, "IBM: when corporations took care of their employees," Marketplace, June 13, 2016.)

So, not a definitive answer, but a conjecture: once upon a time, somewhere between the 1960s and 1980s, IBM employees regularly played a form of gambling golf. Having money on a hole, called "skin" in the game, was known to make that hole's play matter more to the player. Thus having skin in the game became an IBM corporate catchphrase for being personally invested in an endeavor. The phrase gradually leaked out into associated industries, and eventually caught on with the general public (and maybe especially those finance execs and politicians who might be expected to still play "skins" golf today).


1Unfortunately, nearly all of these sources are behind pay-walls; hopefully, the citations are full enough that folks can find them (perhaps through their local library) if desired.

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    Nice. What is the source for all these quotes? I mean, how did you retrieve these? Do they have a link? Are these behind a paywall? – Mitch Apr 14 '17 at 13:09
  • @Mitch Yes, alas, the ones without links are behind paywalls (see my footnote). I started out looking in publicly-available sources but wasn't getting very far, so I switched to pay-services. The earliest sources are mostly from ProQuest, the Computingworld one is from Lexis/Nexis. I don't think the links would work even for people with access to those databases, without a login at my particular institution. I'll see if I can find at least Perot's quote somewhere free; it was repeated a lot, so it's probably out there. – 1006a Apr 14 '17 at 14:08
  • This is interesting. Although it may be used in British English now, I had never heard it before I moved to the US in 1985, having grown up in England. I assumed when I started hearing it that its origin was something to do with getting your skin scraped if you were playing a game like baseball or football in the street. In other words, that you were engaged and at risk. That your opinion was valuable because you had something to lose, you skin or, as the idiom is used, your money or your physical well-being. – Flynn Apr 18 '17 at 17:38
  • There is a British use of "skinned" that means to be taken advantage of financially. For example, if a novice played cards with experienced players and lost all his money. I know this is not an answer; I'm just saying its interesting as it's similar. – Flynn Apr 18 '17 at 18:45
  • @user45959 Yes, there also was apparently an older British "cant" term skin meaning "money bag" or "wallet" that I think is related to that usage. Thieves would skin a man and also lift his skin, both meaning pick his pocket. The noun is listed as "Criminal slang. Now rare." in the OED; it and the verb are both dated to the second half of the 18th century, but the verb, as you say, is still in current use. (I picked up a lot more info about the history of slang usages of the word skin than I could fit into this already-bloated answer!) – 1006a Apr 18 '17 at 19:22
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Earliest use from the New York Times (usually late to the game):

I.B.M. in Joint Venture On Supercomputers By LAWRENCE M. FISHER, Special to the New York Times Published: December 23, 1987

''As much as I.B.M.'s planning is defensive as it is offensive, they had a lot of interest in preventing Steve Chen's technology from falling into foreign hands,'' said Jeffrey Canin, an analyst with Hambrecht & Quist. Although I.B.M. has research projects in parallel processing under way at several universities and company sites, today's agreement is ''putting a little more I.B.M. skin in the game, a commitment of technology, funding and personnel,'' he added.

Not an answer, really, but too long for a comment.

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There would seem to be a direct relationship to Skin Game first referenced in 1868:

There are 2 kinds of gambling in the city, one known as the square game, which is played only by gentlemen, and in first-class houses; the other, the skin game, which is played in all the dens and chambers, and in the thousand low hells of New York. In the square game nobody is solicited, nor obliged to play, though they visit the rooms. In low-gaming houses it is not safe for anyone to enter unless he plays. Persons are not only solicited, but bullied into hazarding something.

As with Skin in the game, the inference is not only that financial/gambling risk is taken on, but also that there is substantial pressure to participate. Observers will not be tolerated. If you don't have skin in the game, you haven't earned the right to comment, criticize or benefit.

  • 1
    +1 Yes, I think this is probably the origin of the usage in golf. From what I can glean, skin was actually a specific card game, that either took its name from or came to be synonymous with illegal, crooked gambling (much like bunco, a specific dice game and also a generic term for illegal gambling and swindling). I think it's the game now sometimes called Georgia skins, whose rules have enough similarities to golf skins to at least be suggestive. – 1006a Apr 15 '17 at 1:22

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