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This is perhaps a surprising instalment in my sequence of Watership Down questions, being about human dialect and nothing to do with rabbits at all. Of course, it comes from the chapter "Dea ex Machina":

"Why don' you do somethin' sensible," he said, "'stead o' bidin' there 'ollerin' and carryin' on like you was skimmish? You wants go'n get some cloze on, then you c'n go'n put 'im in that old cage what's in shed. One what you 'ad for they budgies."

Nearly all the humans with speaking parts in Watership Down have this kind of rural dialect, but only here is a word I couldn't decipher at all. A more standard representation of Lucy's father's words would be:

Why don't you do something sensible, instead of staying there hollering and carrying on like you were [skimmish]? You should go and get some clothes on, then you can go and put him in that old cage in the shed. The one you had for those budgies.

What does "skimmish" mean here?

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The context is that Lucy is “’ollerin’ and carryin’ on” (that is, crying) because she is unhappy at the prospect of killing the rabbit:

Lucy began to cry. She had not lived all her life on a farm for nothing and she knew very well that everything her father had said was right. But she was upset by the idea of killing the rabbit in cold blood.

Richard Adams (1972). Watership Down, chapter 48. Penguin.

The meaning must therefore be:

skimmish squeamish

John Downes (1986). A Dictionary of Devon Dialect, p. 26. Padstow: Tabb House.

Lucy must be younger than eleven years old, as her father muses that she “was very likely goin’ to grammar school”, so it seems unlikely that he would compare her behaviour to drunkenness, as suggested in the other answer.

A note on “’ollering” since this seems to be a difficulty. The OED says “holler, v. 1. cry out loud” and although this is usually “cry” in the sense “shout”, it can also be “cry” in the sense “weep and wail”. Two citations for this sense:

A man with a baby in his arms wearily drifts to the coffee-stall, waiting for the belated all-night train. And at once this company of nightbirds and homeless populace become absorbed in one overwhelming problem—how to stop the baby crying. […] A “certain old drab,” half-starved, is stuffed with coffee and sardines and promised “tuppence” to stop the child's “’ollering.” She immediately succeeds.

Charles Masterman (1909). The Condition of England, p. 204. London: Methuen.

And when grandfather went down and teened† a candle and oped the door, there was two voices, if you please; for Christian was talking and a babby was screaming! [… Christian said,] “To the stone I went, brave as a regiment of soldiers, but scarce was I beside it when I heard a child hollering and shrieking like a sucking pig being killed.”

Eden Phillpotts (1921). Told at ‘The Plume’, p. 205. London: Hurst & Blackett.

† teen, v. To light, kindle (Joseph Wright (1898), English Dialect Dictionary, volume VI, pp. 54 & 153.)

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  • This seems like a very good answer. I'm confused about two things. (1) How come the father doesn't know what school his daughter is at and (2) Why do you say that grammar school means she was under 11? Note: I went to grammar school from 11 to 17 y/o. – chasly - supports Monica Mar 18 at 21:31
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    @chasly-supportsMonica the sentence appears to be future tense, but written as one with might speak with less-than-stellar grammar skills. This implies she hasn't taken her 11-plus test yet and does not know if she will be going to grammar school yet. Therefore, she must be 11 years of age or less. – phyrfox Mar 18 at 22:46
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According to Cassell's Dictionary of Slang, skimmish is a variant of skimish, which means beer or alcohol.

skimish n. (also skimmish) [1900s-70s] (mainly tramp) beer, alcohol; thus skimisher/skimmisher, a heavy drinker. [Shelta skimis, to drink, skimisk, drunk]

The Oxford Dictionary of Modern Slang agrees:

skimish /ˈskɪmɪʃ/ noun
Alcoholic drink. 1908–. J.Curtis He had been drinking all that skimish without having had a bite to eat ...

The Cassell's dictionary says that the word origin is from Shelta, a language spoken by Irish Travelers. The word skimmish appears in traveler Maggie Smith-Bendell's 2013 autobiography After All These Years: Our Gypsy Journey Continues, in the meaning drunk:

Me Dad used to enjoy getting skimmish by visiting the closest kitcherma (pub) and downing pints of brown ale.    (p. 15)

From these examples, it appears that Lucy's father is using the word to mean drunk. The alternative suggested in the other answer, that he is calling Lucy "squeamish," does not seem convincing to me, for two reasons:

  1. As Merriam-Webster says, squeamish means easily nauseated or excessively fastidious. The criticized behavior, "hollerin' and carryin' on," is not characteristic of squeamishness. It is, however, fairly common in drunk people—or in people who are upset, as the quote in the other answer says Lucy is. The fact that Lucy is eleven doesn't preclude her behavior at being upset from being compared to drunkenness.
  2. Lucy's father is telling her to get a cage for the rabbit because he has decided to let her keep it, and is not planning to kill it. Since the rabbit isn't going to be killed, the question of his telling her not to be squeamish at the rabbit's impending death doesn't arise.

It is true that Lucy's family are not travelers, but the fact that the word is of traveler origin doesn't mean that it is used solely by travelers.

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