What’s a skein?

Word count: 270 words

Reading time: Just over 1 minute

Increase your vocabulary and you’ll make your writing much more precise. That’s why I provide a word of the week. Today’s word: skein.

I know a skein is a length of wool or yarn but when I encountered the word again recently, I wondered about its etymology. I’d found it in a July 8 and 15/13 New Yorker story titled “The Prodigal Daughter,” by Jill Lepore. Here is the sentence in which it appeared:

My mother and I had got tangled up, like skeins. 

The noun, it turns out, is French, from the middle 15th century. Then, it was spelled escaigne and it meant “a hank of yarn.” In turn, that word dates from the mid-14th century and the Old French word escagne.

Here’s what else interests me: There are many alternative — but closely related — meanings. For example,

  • anything wound in or resembling such a coil: a skein of hair.
  • something suggestive of the twistings of a skein: an incoherent skein of words.
  • a succession or series of similar or interrelated things: a skein of tennis victories.
  • a flock of geese, ducks, or the like, in flight.

Essentially, this is a word with built-in metaphors. Of course a coil of hair would be called a skein! Can’t you just see it in your mind’s eye? But it hadn’t occurred to me that you could also have a skein of words or of tennis victories…. And I certainly didn’t know it applied to a flock of geese or ducks in flight. Perhaps this is because I live in a city?

Do you have any other uses for the word skein?

Scroll to Top