The second issue of Conde Nast's Portfolio, the glossy business magazine, hits newsstands soon. Meanwhile, the companion web site has published a glossary of corporate-speak that's neither as comprehensive nor as revealing as it might have been. I was especially disappointed not to see "skin in the game" on the list: it crops up regularly as a search term that brings readers to this blog.
I briefly discussed "skin in the game" in the comments to a post I wrote about clichés last year. For the record, here's the story I've been able to cobble together:
The phrase first appeared in writing in 1991, which means it probably was first spoken in the 1980s; it's been attributed variously to Ross Perot and Warren Buffett. Although it sounds like a reference to bodily harm, it's more likely about money: According to the Oxford English Dictionary, cited in this post from the American Dialect Society's listserv, "skin" was used as a synonym for "dollar" as early as 1930. And much earlier--in the late eighteenth century--a "skin" was a money-purse (possibly made of animal skin).
So: to have "skin in the game" is to have a financial stake.
(It's interesting, though possibly irrelevant, to consider that "buck"--another slang term for "dollar"--may be a shortening of "buckskin." This sense of "buck" was first recorded in 1856.)
(For the Portfolio lead, hat tip to Working With Words,)