Intermediate+ Word of the Day: skim

skim (verb) /skɪm/ LISTEN

I always skim the newspaper when I'm having my morning coffee.

To skim means ‘to remove something floating on the surface of a liquid with a spoon’ and, figuratively, it means ‘to take something good,’ usually money, from something else. It also means ‘to glide over a surface, usually water,’ and ‘to throw something smoothly to bounce along a surface, usually water.’ (In the US we also say skip for this meaning.) Skim also means ‘to cover with a thin layer’ and ‘to read quickly without paying detailed attention.’

Example sentences

  • When making jam, you need to skim the scum off the top.
  • The accountant discovered a lot of money missing from the business and it turned out the boss had been skimming off the profits.
  • The boat skimmed across the waves.
  • Eugene spent most of his day skimming stones across the lake; he managed to get some of them to bounce seven or eight times.
  • The construction worker skimmed the walls to make them flat and even.
  • I didn't have time to read the book properly, so I just skimmed it.

Words often used with skim

skim information: steal information from someone’s credit or debit card with a swiping device. Criminals sometimes do this by inserting such a device into the card slot of an ATM or card reader. Example: “Fiona realized that her credit card had been skimmed at the grocery store.”

skim over: read quickly and superficially. Example: “Fred skimmed over the text until he found the answer to the teacher’s question.”

In pop culture

Listen to Marc Bolan singing “Misty Mist” here. Listen out for the lyric “Jump as sunlight skims the sky.”

Did you know?

Skimming is also a method of removing fat from milk. Semi-skimmed milk (or 2% milk, as we call it in the US), is milk with half the fat content removed and skimmed milk (or skim milk in the US) has almost all the fat removed. Whole milk does not have fat removed at all.

Other forms

skimmed (adjective), skimmer (noun)


Skim, meaning ‘to remove matter floating on the surface of a liquid’ or ‘to lift the scum from something,’ dates back to the late 14th or early 15th century, as the Late Middle English verb skymen or skemen, both variants of the earlier scumen. It came into English from the Old French verb escumer (to remove scum), from the noun escume (scum). The Old French language got the noun from a Germanic source, and it can be traced back to the Proto-Germanic skuma-, probably from the Proto-Indo-European root s(k)eu- (to cover or conceal). Skim is related to the French écume, the Old Norse skum, the Old High German scum (all meaning ‘scum’) and the German Schaum (foam or froth), as well as the Sanskrit kostha (enclosing wall) and skunati (covers), the Greek kytos (a hollow or a vessel) and keutho (to cover or hide), the Latin cutis (skin) and obscurus (dark), the Lithuanian kiautas (husk) and kūtis (stall), the Armenian ciw (roof), the Russian kishka (sheath or gut), the Old Norse sky (cloud), the German Scheuer (barn), the Welsh cuddio (to hide), and English words such as custody, cutaneous, cuticle, hide (both the verb and the noun), hoard, hose, huddle, hut, obscure, scum and sky. The sense ‘to throw a pebble in a way that makes it skip on the surface of water’ first appeared in the early 17th century, while ‘to move lightly and quickly over the surface of something’ is from the mid-17th century, originally a figurative use based on the movement of removing scum from liquid. This sense expanded further into figurative territory with ‘to glance over carelessly’ (when reading) in the late 18th century. Skim milk has been around since the late 16th century.

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