Just as an aimless stroll can allow you to find a new perspective on a project, casually browsing Readex’s Archive of Americana
can lead to serendipitous discoveries. What began as an investigation of nautical terminology, specifically the term “skylarking,” ended by shedding light on several amusing judicial opinions reprinted in the U.S. Congressional Serial Set
Originally, skylarking described the antics of sailors who climbed about their ship’s rigging and slid down its backstays for fun. The ancient word "lac" means "to play" and because the frolicking of these deckhands started high in the masts, the term "skylacing" was born. Over time the word changed to "skylarking" and was used to refer to horseplay in general.
At first, skylarking wasn’t used pejoratively. For sailors with free time, this boisterous activity was considered a better diversion than engaging in mutinous talk. However, by the mid-19th century skylarking in the U.S. Navy became an offense punishable by the lash. The term first appears in the Serial Set in the 1849 publication, “Report of the Secretary of the Navy, with returns of punishments in the Navy.”1 The punishment for skylarking was comparable to that given for disobedience of orders, fighting, taking grog, skulking, or drunkenness: three to ten “lashes with cats.”