In my new Candlepower column for Visual Thesaurus, I look at the shifting meanings of sketch (originally “a rough drawing or performance”) and sketchy (originally “incomplete, lacking details”). For some time I’ve puzzled over how these terms of art—literally—came to become terms of disparagement, at least among younger Americans. And because my beat is the language of commerce, I tackle the question by way of two brand names: Etch A Sketch and Dr. Sketchy’s Anti-Art School.
Google “sketchy neighborhood” and you get more than 67,000 results. “Sketchy area” yields more than 70,000. Both references are to what Urban Dictionary’s contributors agree is a synonym for “unsafe,” “creepy,” “not kosher,” or “someone or something that gives off a bad feeling.”
And “sketchy” doesn’t even need the adjectival -y suffix to carry this newer meaning. “Sketch,” which historically has been a noun and a verb, is now also an adjective with a meaning identical to “sketchy”: questionable, of dubious character.