The other day I happened to use the word skinflint, and even as the word was popping out of my mouth, it occurred to me to wonder where on earth it had come from. Does it meant that you're flinty-skinned? Or that you have such a lean and hungry look that it appears that your skin is drawn over flintlike bones?
It turns out that neither is the case. Instead, there is a dead phrase whose cadaver lurks in that word. Once upon a time, avaricious people were said to be so greedy that they would skin a flint for its hide. Presumably, back when central heating was expensive and furry animals were abundant, people would occasionally skin dogs and cats (there's more than one way to do this) and, I imagine, even mice and rats in order to save money at the tailor. The absurd pinnacle of such skinning would be the attempt to skin a flint.
Daniel Defoe wrote a book called the Complete English Tradesman (1727), in which he warns that a successful merchant is liable to end up with the following reputation:
That he has been a Hard-Head, a Devourer, a Jew; for these, and more such are the general Titles by which such Tradesmen are usually distinguished and known; that he will let no Body live by him, that he will skin a Flint, that he will buy cheaper than any Man can fell, and sell dearer than any Man can buy; that he cares not who sinks if he can but swim; that he grinds the Faces of his Workmen, and will hardly let a poor Man live by his Labour: Thus he has got what he has by griping and squeezing of labouring Men; and that it will never thrive with him, and the like.
There was even a sister phrase to flay a flint and a later American variant that he would skin a flea for its hide and tallow. All lost and gone to the great phrasebook in the sky.
P.S. For those of you who live within striking distance of Islington, I will be along for the author evening at the Waterstones on Islington Green tomorrow (Wednesday) night. Essentially, there'll be mince pies and wine from 5 till 8 and all are welcome and I undertake to sign copies of The Etymologicon with any personalised dedication that your big heart requires.
Bring me my best skinning-knife.