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From Middle English skulken, of North Germanic origin; compare Danish skulke (shirk).


  • IPA(key): /skʌlk/
  • (file)
  • Rhymes: -ʌlk


skulk (plural skulks)

  1. A group of foxes.[1]
    • c. 1450, Juliana Berners, Book of Saint Albans, Westminster: Wynkyn de Worde, 1496, “The companyes of bestys & foules,”[2]
      a Sculke of foxes
    • 1973, Thomas Pynchon, Penguin, 2000, Gravity’s Rainbow, Chapter 1, pp. 59-60,[3]
      A skulk of foxes, a cowardice of curs are tonight’s traffic whispering in the yards and lanes.
    • 2007, Millard Kaufman, Bowl of Cherries, San Francisco: McSweeney’s Books, Chapter 19, p. 128,[4]
      A skulk of fox padded daintily over a stream-slashed meadow, and a herd of deer like iron ornaments stood stock still in their winter pelage.
  2. (figuratively) A group of people seen as being fox-like (e.g. cunning, dishonest, or having nefarious plans).
    • 1972, R. M. Koster, The Prince, New York: Morrow, Chapter 43, p. 320,[5]
      [] a skulk of priests flapped out of the Church of San Geronimo, and women kneeling at novena put away their beads []
    • 1982, Richard Girling, The Forest on the Hill, New York: Viking, “1160: Chivalry,” p. 69,[6]
      The law was served by a skulk of informers, who traded their whispers to the royal foresters and woodwards, who gilded their tales for the verderers and regarders, who presented the guilty to the forest Justices.
    • 2000, John Banville, Eclipse, New York: Knopf, 2001, Part 5, p. 190,[7]
      [] they went on, down the road, staggering, and shouldering each other, like a skulk of Jacobean villains.
    • 2004, Micah L. Sifry and Nancy Watzman, Is That a Politician in Your Pocket? Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, Chapter 24, pp. 200-201,[8]
      Ten days after the attacks, a skulk of insurance executives met with President Bush and Commerce Secretary Donald Evans to press for the creation of a multibillion-dollar government safety net to limit their exposure to future terrorist incidents.
  3. The act of skulking.
    1. The act of moving in a stealthy or furtive way.
      • 1857, Jacob S. C. Abbott, History of King Philip, Sovereign Chief of the Wampanoags, New York: Harper, Chapter , p. 369,[9]
        A part of their company, who had been sent out on a skulk, had not returned, and great anxiety was felt lest they had fallen into an ambush and been captured.
      • 1902, Frederic Remington, John Ermine of the Yellowstone, New York: Macmillan, Chapter 18, p. 246,[10]
        There was only the danger that his horse might lame himself in the night; but then he could go back in the hills and make a skulk on foot.
      • 1922, Henry Williamson, Dandelion Days, London: W. Collins, “The Opening of the Flower,” p. 120,[11]
        Willie knew that the time was propitious for a skulk across Hall, thence into the class-room of Mr. Beach.
      • 2012, Katherine Boo, Behind the Beautiful Forevers, New York: Random House, Prologue, p. xix,[12]
        That gave him three or four more hours of darkness in which to plan an escape more sensible than a skulk to the hut next door.
    2. A stealthy or furtive gait or way of moving.
    3. The act of avoiding an obligation or responsibility.
      • 1859, George Little, The American Cruiser’s Own Book, Philadelphia: J.B. Smith, Chapter 3, p. 36,[15]
        [They took] good care [] to swing their hammocks as far abaft as possible, for the twofold purpose of having a skulk in their watch below at night, and to keep clear of the sprays, which usually pour down the gratings []
      • 1867, James Greenwood, Humphrey Dyot, London: Sampson Low, Son, and Marston, Volume 1, Chapter 15, p. 224,[16]
        “This nonsense won’t do for me, you know; if you want a skulk, you had better pack off back to the house.”
      • 1879, anonymous, Convict Life; or, Revelations Concerning Convicts and Convict Prisons, London: Wyman & Sons, Chapter 7, p. ,[17]
        Bidwell is not the only one who feigns paralysis; many poison their flesh by inserting in it copper-wire or worsted; others swallow ground glass, eat poisonous insects, swallow soap and soda, or slightly maim and disable themselves. Anything by which they can secure a skulk, and escape from what Mr. Carlyle has wisely called the “sacredness of work.”
  4. (obsolete, chiefly nautical, military) One who avoids an obligation or responsibility.
    Synonyms: shirk, shirker, skulker.
    • 1832, Frederick Marryat, Newton Forster; or, The Merchant Service, London: James Cochrane, Volume 1, Chapter 16, p. 238,[18]
      “I shall do my duty, Mr. Jackson,” replied Newton, “and fear no consequences.”
      “Indeed! you saw how I settled a skulk just now;—beware of his fate!”
    • 1847, Herman Melville, Omoo, New York: Harper, Chapter 4, p. 32,[19]
      Toward evening there was something to be done on deck, and the carpenter who belonged to the watch was missing. “Where’s that skulk, Chips?” shouted Jermin down the forecastle scuttle.
    • 1872, Sallie F. Chapin, Fitz-Hugh St. Clair, the South Carolina Rebel Boy, Philadelphia: Claxton, Remsen & Haffelfinger, Chapter 7, p. 75,[20]
      If you should ever need help, my son, let this be your rule—‘never ask it from the man who deserted his country in her hour of need.’ The soldier’s child will find no mercy from a skulk, depend on it.
    • 1906, Henry E. Shepherd, Life of Robert Edward Lee, New York: Neale, Part 3, p. 62,[21]
      An exempt, a skulk, or one upon whom rested the faintest suspicion of evading duty or shrinking in the critical hour of impending battle, was the special object of his wrath.


skulk (third-person singular simple present skulks, present participle skulking, simple past and past participle skulked)

  1. To stay where one cannot be seen, conceal oneself (often in a cowardly way or with the intent of doing harm).
    Synonym: hide
    • 1610, William Shakespeare, The Winter’s Tale, Act I, Scene 2,[22]
      Is whispering nothing?
      Is leaning cheek to cheek? is meeting noses?
      Kissing with inside lip? stopping the career
      Of laughing with a sigh?—a note infallible
      Of breaking honesty—horsing foot on foot?
      Skulking in corners? wishing clocks more swift?
    • 1697, John Dryden (translator), The Works of Virgil containing his Pastorals, Georgics and Aeneis, London: Jacob Tonson, The Third Pastoral or, Palaemon, p. 11,[23]
      Discover’d and defeated of your Prey,
      You sculk’d behind the Fence, and sneak’d away.
    • 1792, Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, London: J. Johnson, Part 1, Chapter 1, p. 17,[24]
      [] vice skulks, with all its native deformity, from close investigation;
    • 1852, Charles Dickens, Bleak House, chapter 26
      Behind dingy blind and curtain, in upper story and garret, skulking more or less under false names, false hair, false titles, false jewellery, and false histories, a colony of brigands lie in their first sleep.
    • 1928, Radclyffe Hall, chapter 6, in The Well of Loneliness, London: Jonathan Cape, OCLC 5359892; republished New York, N.Y.: Covici Friede Publishers, October 1932, OCLC 872643730, book 1, section 5, page 60:
      Stephen's craze for physical culture increased, and now it began to invade the schoolroom. Dumb-bells appeared in the schoolroom bookcases, while half worn-out gym shoes skulked in the corners.
  2. To move in a stealthy or furtive way; to come or go while trying to avoid detection.
    Synonyms: sneak, steal
    • 1587, Raphael Holinshed et al., The First and Second Volumes of Chronicles, London: Henry Denham, “The Supplie of the Irish Chronicles extended to this present yeare of our Lord 1586,” p. 142,[25]
      The residue like vnto the bare arssed rebels sculked to and fro; but in the end, they and the others were all dispersed, & durst not to appeare.
    • 1753, Samuel Richardson, The History of Sir Charles Grandison, London: for the author, Volume 4, Letter 38, p. 266,[26]
      He has been seen with her, by one whom he would not know, at Cuper’s Gardens; dressed like a Sea-officer, and skulking, like a thief, into the privatest walks of the place.
    • 1800, Samuel Taylor Coleridge (translator), The Piccolomini, or The First Part of Wallenstein by Friedrich Schiller, London: Longman and Rees, Act V, Scene 4, p. 196,[27]
      Noble brother, I am
      Not one of those men who in words are valiant,
      And when it comes to action skulk away.
    • 1904, Paul Laurence Dunbar, “The Lynching of Jube Benson” in The Heart of Happy Hollow, New York: Dodd, Mead, p. 233,[28]
      Fully a dozen of the citizens had seen him hastening toward the woods and noted his skulking air [...]
    • 2000, Zadie Smith, White Teeth, New York: Vintage, 2001, Chapter 1, p. 15,[29]
      Generally, women can’t do this, but men retain the ancient ability to leave a family and a past. They just unhook themselves, like removing a fake beard, and skulk discreetly back into society, changed men. Unrecognizable.
  3. To avoid an obligation or responsibility.
    Synonym: shirk
    • 1782, William Cowper, “Table Talk” in Poems, London: J. Johnson, p. 17,[30]
      Let discipline employ her wholesome arts,
      Let magistrates alert perform their parts,
      Not skulk or put on a prudential mask,
      As if their duty were a desp’rate task;
    • 1933, George Orwell, Down and Out in Paris and London, Chapter 33,[31]
      They are paid about three shillings a day for ten hours’ work—it is hard work, especially in windy weather, and there is no skulking, for an inspector comes round frequently to see that the men are on their beats.

Usage notes[edit]

Not to be confused with sulk.



  1. ^ Thomas Wright, Dictionary of Obsolete and Provincial English, London: Henry G. Bohn, 1857, Volume 2, p. 833: “SCULK, [] A company of foxes.”[1]