Skin in the Game

Here’s how it happened: I went looking for the etymology of “skin in the game.” What I found was a set of words that describe some concepts I never knew existed or, at least, I’d never thought about.

A word exists, I learned, for a figure of speech in which a part is used for the whole or the whole for a part.  The word is synecdoche (pronounced si-nek-duh-kee).  Some examples are “hired hands” for workers; “White House” for the president and his staff; “the law” for police officers; and “John Hancock” for signature.

Some, though, suggest that the definition is more restricted and that a synecdoche is a subclass of a metonym, in which a thing is not called by its own name but by something associated with it, such as “Washington” for U.S. government or “Downing Street” for U.K. government.

During the course of reading about this stuff, I came upon discussions of polysemy, trope, rhetoric, metaphor, sememe, morpheme, and a host of other terms (some of which I knew, some I did not) that could occupy my time for the remainder of the day.  But I have things to do.

Anyway, there’s disagreement, though, over whether “whole used to in lieu of part” or “part in lieu of whole” are both synechdoches or whether one (synecdoche) is part of the other.  Wikipedia explains the issue as follows:

“When the distinction is made, it is the following: when “A” is used to refer to “B”, it is a synecdoche if A is a component of B or if B is a component of A, and a metonym if A is commonly associated with B but not part of its whole or a whole of its part. Thus, “20,000 hungry mouths to feed” is a synecdoche because mouths (A) are a part of the people (B) referred to. “Australia votes” is also a synecdoche because Australia is a whole of which the people who voted are a part. On the other hand, “The White House said” is metonymy, but not synecdoche, for the president and his staff, because, although the White House is associated with the president and his staff, the building is not a part of the people.”

I don’t know whether I’ll ever need to know these words, nor whether I’ll remember them, but I know that I find the conversation interesting.

But, back to “skin in the game.”  I wanted to know its origins.  I learned that some attributed it to Warren Buffet, referring to a personal financial stake in an enterprise. Others suggest the phrase evolved from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, when Shylock insists on a promise from Antonio of  a pound of his flesh to secure Bassanio’s loan. I figured William Saffire would have the answer; the only definitive answer I got from searching for his position on the matter is that Warren Buffet did not coin the term.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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2 Responses to Skin in the Game

  1. I don’t know, Pauline? What do you think? What do we do, versus what should we do?

  2. Do we give credit to the source of something or to the one who popularized it?

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