Q&A: Skimp vs scrimp

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week we’re going to skimp on the scrimp details.

Q: Hi AWC, I need you to clear something up for me.

A: Sorry, you’ll need a prescription from your doctor for that kind of thing.

Q: No no, I’m not being rash. I have two words which have been giving me trouble.

A: Go on.

Q: They’re “skimp” and “scrimp” – and I may be using them wrong.

A: How are you using them?

Q: Throw another skimp on the barbie.

A: Seriously?

Q: No, I’m kidding. I’d never do that to a Barbie doll.

A: Oh dear. This is unravelling fast.

Q: Can you just tell me what they mean and how to remember them?

A: Well, they are a little tricky. Because both deal with the bare minimum and being thrifty, but in slightly different ways.

Q: Okay.

A: So, “skimp” is a verb that relates to being sparing or thrifty – getting by on the bare minimum. It lends itself to the popular phrase “skimp on” – which is providing meagre amounts of something.

Q: Examples?

A: “Kellie decided to skimp on her duties at work so that she could attend Kate’s farewell afternoon tea – only to find they’d skimped on the food and there were only cold sandwiches and those biscuits that no one liked.”

Q: That sounds like the saddest farewell ever. No wonder Kate is leaving.

A: Well, quite.

Q: I hope they at least all signed her card…

A: Shall we continue?

Q: Please do.

A: So, meanwhile “scrimp” is also a verb, and also deals with doing things sparingly or in a thrifty way. Macquarie Dictionary describes it as using ‘severe economy’, with the example, “they scrimped on butter as best they could”.

Q: So, how do you tell them apart?

A: It’s all in the intentions. To “scrimp” is to be sparing with or thrifty by saving. To get by with as little as possible, or to save slowly. Meanwhile, when you “skimp” – it’s about giving/using/spending the bare minimum. A restaurant might skimp on salad dressing or a company skimp on decent food at someone’s farewell.

Q: Wow, that’s pretty subtle. So, “to scrimp” is to collect in small amounts and “to skimp” is to use in small amounts – both with being thrifty in mind.

A: That’s right.

Q: But hang on. Isn’t there a phrase “to scrimp and save”? Shouldn’t it have been “skimp and save” seeing as “scrimp” already means save?

A: Probably, but it’s an idiom and can do what it wants. Idioms are the rockstars of the grammar world.

Q: I can’t stop thinking about Kate who “scrimped and saved” while working in her dead-end job, only for her workmates to “skimp on the food” at her farewell.

A: Yes, we’re certainly glad Kate has escaped that horrible fictional place that we just made up.

Q: And if I decide to wear something “skimpy” to the beach next summer, it means I’m using the bare minimum of material, right?

A: Haha, yes. With the emphasis on bare!

If you have a grammar gripe or punctuation puzzle that you’d like our Q&A to explore, email it to us today!

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