This is the story of two business names — both US trademarks, one for half a century and one for less than a year. Actually, it's the story of the word that's common to both trademarks. And to get directly to my point, it's about the way that one word has shifted in meaning over recent history — but only incompletely, so that both meanings coexist a little uncomfortably in semantic space, at least for me and many other speakers of American English.

The first trademark is Etch A Sketch, the mechanical drawing toy first sold in the US in 1960. Its original name was L'Ecrain Magique, or "Magic Screen"; the Ohio Art Company bought it from its French inventor and gave it a new, mnemonically rhyming name. The "sketch" part of Etch A Sketch, meaning "a rough drawing," had been imported into English in the 1660s from Dutch schets, itself a borrowing from Italian schizzo (literally "a splash" or "a squirt"). The literary sense of "sketch" — a short account — also dates to the 1660s; the theatrical "sketch" — a short play, usually comic — came into use in the 1780s. "Sketch comedy" has been in the lexicon since at least the vaudeville era. By the time Etch A Sketch made its very successful debut, Americans also knew about "sketch books" (essay collections; 1820), "sketch maps" (rough maps; late 19th century), "sketch pads" (mid-20th century), and even "a hot sketch," early-20th-century slang for a ridiculous sight or a funny person. (From Ernest Hemingway's 1926 short-story collection, In Our Time: "You're a hot sketch. Who the hell asked you to butt in here?")

Americans also were familiar with the adjectival form of the word, sketchy, which since the early 19th century had meant "lacking in details" or "incomplete" — like a quick drawing, in other words. A "sketchy report" could use some fleshing out; a "sketchy description" would fail to nail a bad guy.

Which brings me to the second trademark: Dr. Sketchy's Anti-Art School. As a business, it's been around since 2005; the trademark was published for opposition earlier this year.

As you might guess from "anti-art school," the "sketchy" in Dr. Sketchy's has something to do with sketching or drawing. According to the website's FAQ page:

Dr. Sketchy's Anti-Art school is the world's premier alt.drawing movement. Artists draw glamorous underground performers in an atmosphere of boozy conviviality. Found in 2005 in a dive bar in Brooklyn, Dr. Sketchy's has now spread to over 100 cities around the world.

(Read more about Dr. Sketchy's in this 2009 New York Times article.)

Those keywords — "alt.drawing," "boozy conviviality," "dive bar" — also suggest an alternate meaning of "sketchy" that has nothing to do with art, theater, or literature. Here's a definition provided by Merriam-Webster online, the only standard dictionary (as far as I can tell) that acknowledges this meaning:

Questionable, iffy: got into a sketchy situation> <a sketchy character>

The OED and American Heritage Dictionary may not recognize this meaning of "sketchy," but Google "sketchy neighborhood" and you get more than 67,000 results. "Sketchy area" yields more than 70,000. Both references are to what Urban Dictionary's contributors agree is a synonym for "unsafe," "creepy," "not kosher," or "someone or something that gives off a bad feeling."

And  "sketchy" doesn't even need the adjectival –y suffix to carry this newer meaning. "Sketch," which historically has been a noun and a verb, is now also an adjective with a meaning identical to "sketchy": questionable, of dubious character. Connie Eble, the resident linguist in North Carolina University" English department and the author of Slang and Sociability, commented on college students' use of this term in a February 2008 interview with the Visual Thesaurus in which she discussed the previous semester's slang highlights:

The top one was "sketch" or "sketchy" . . . which means "potentially dangerous." You can talk about a place being "sketch" or "sketchy" or you can even describe a person in this way. Very often it's used by a female speaker who's talking about a male who is unknown to her or who maybe is trying to make sexual advances toward her. She would say, "That guy's sketch," or call him a "sketchball." "Sketch" has been popular now for a couple of semesters.

(For more on sketchy college slang, see Visual Thesaurus editor Ben Zimmer's On Language column in the New York Times Magazine last year, "Creeper! Rando! Sketchball!")

How did "sketch" come to mean "dangerous"? In a March 2010 Language Log post, "Sketchy Lexicography," linguist Mark Liberman attempted to trace sketchy/disreputable to a "forking" from sketchy/incomplete or even "a hot sketch." He reported hearing the sketchy/disreputable usage among his students in the 1990s, and speculated that it had spread "through the usual youth-culture channels."

But several commenters told a different origin story. Here's Grant Barrett, who edits the Double-Tongued Dictionary of slang and catchwords and co-hosts the public-radio show A Way With Words:

When we tackled this word origin on the radio show . . . [w]e received this response from a listener [...].

"A friend of mine who had been a crystal meth addict in the 1980's used the term in different forms relating to that drug. She said for example, a sketcher- a user; sketching- experiencing intoxication; sketchy- to describe someone who might be under influence of meth. The caller was from a major city in Oregon, which fits with these definitions because the use of crystal meth was rampant there for a time."

My own research confirmed this story. For at least 20 years, and possibly closer to 25, "sketch" has been a slang term for methamphetamine, and "to sketch" has meant "to come down from a meth-induced high." (Side note: Words starting with sk- are well represented in drug slang. Consider "skag" for heroin, "skee" for opium, "skittling" for  abusing cold tablets, and others.) It seems likely that the term lost its drug-specific meaning somewhere along the way while retaining its unpleasant/sleazy/dangerous connotation.

What interests me is that for some English-speakers, including many of the commenters on Liberman's post, "sketchy" means only "incomplete" and "sketch" is only a noun or a verb. These people are confused by "a sketchy neighborhood" — is it still being developed? For others, especially those under the age of thirty, "sketchy" only means "disreputable" or "dangerous." These people are confused by "a sketchy report" — is it unpleasant?

Context, of course, can sometimes provide clarity. Through rhyme and a reinforcing verb, Etch A Sketch makes it obvious that it represents the "quick art" side of "sketch." But for Dr. Sketchy's Anti-Art School, the slight shimmer between old (artistic) and new (disreputable) meanings is part of the brand identity. For its era and its audience, "Dr. Sketchy's" is the perfect name to express an ironic, ambiguous, and subversive concept.


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Nancy Friedman is the chief wordworker at verbal-branding consultancy Wordworking, and the author of a fine blog on naming, branding and more called Fritinancy. Nancy has named a venture-capital firm, a laser hair-removal device, a mobile-money service, and many other companies and products. A former journalist, she still writes or ghostwrites articles, speeches, white papers, and books. Click here to read more articles by Nancy Friedman.

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Comments from our users:

Tuesday June 7th 2011, 8:45 AM
Comment by: Cameron Reddy (Ann Arbor, MI)
What a fun read! I kept trying to peruse it sketchily, but I kept getting drawn back in.
Tuesday June 7th 2011, 1:03 PM
Comment by: Kcecelia (San Francisco, CA)
My niece graduated from Reed College in 2010. In 2006, when she was a high school senior at the Menlo School in Atherton, she and other students there used sketch & sketchy to mean sleazy or questionable, but were also aware of the more mainstream meanings of the two words. I know this because I noted the popularity of the alternate usage, asked for a clarification, and was greeted first with a cascade of giggles, and then learned of sketch & sketchy's new darker side.
Tuesday June 7th 2011, 1:19 PM
Comment by: christiane P. (paris)
A realy funny story very pleasant to read, and when I see the title L"Ecrain Magique"I automatically think about
a French man, and try peruse it again and again.
Thank you Nancy Fredmant entertain us.
Tuesday June 7th 2011, 4:14 PM
Comment by: Edward A. (New York, NY)
Your side note begs the question - did the slang term "skeevy" travel a similar route? Originally related to opium (and/or heroin) use, then later to generally disgusting or disreputable?

E.g. "Anthony Weiner's Twitter account. He probably did something slightly skeevy..."
Tuesday June 7th 2011, 4:36 PM
Comment by: Nancy FriedmanVisual Thesaurus Contributor
@Edward A.: According to the OED, "skeevy" derives from Tuscan dialect "schifo" = sense of nausea, repugnance, disgust. It's related to English "eschew." More about skeevy in this 2009 Language Log post: http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=1527
Tuesday June 7th 2011, 8:34 PM
Comment by: begum F.Top 10 Commenter
Thanks for the wonderful research.
Beyond my imagination about the origin of this world.
You always present valuable information in your writings.
FB
Thursday June 9th 2011, 4:10 PM
Comment by: Ellen M.
So does the Skechers (NYSE: SKX) shoe company (founded 1992 by an ex-LA Gear founder as a Doc Martens distributor and knocker-off, also skate shoes) name also come from the speed-to-sketch drug and street ambit?
Thursday June 9th 2011, 6:05 PM
Comment by: Nancy FriedmanVisual Thesaurus Contributor
@Ellen: I've been curious about that question myself. In fact, when I was researching this column I contacted Skechers three times (phone and email) in an attempt to learn the company's official naming story. The only response I got was from an administrative assistant who told me, "If there is interest, they will reply." I assume there was no interest.
Thursday July 7th 2011, 1:54 AM
Comment by: Skye H.
I've been reading you (and appreciating your work) for years. This was one of your best. Very pithy insights. Thanks.

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