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Of mules and men

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What is the origin of 'mule skinner'? I can't find it in my dictionary, but I've heard people singing about mule skinners all my life. My wife Sally says that Mule Skinner was a football player at Texas A&M in the Bear Bryant days, but I think she's hanging noodles on my ears. — Gerry Mander

Coincidentally, this same question came up in the office the other day, and, like Gerry, I was surprised to find that my dictionary was not very forthcoming. Random House says only that mule skinner is an informal name for a "muleteer". A muleteer is defined separately as "a driver of mules." That muleteer gets more respect than mule skinner suggests muleteer is the more "correct" or more popular form, but I don't believe that's so. I never heard anybody singing about muleteers.

I'd always thought the skin of mule skinner had to do with frequent and expert use of the whip. But a website called "Hillbilly Savants" disagrees, and, unlike Random House, the website has a substantial entry on mule skinner, sometimes spelling it as one word, sometimes as two:

"A muleskinner is a professional mule driver whose sole purpose was to keep the mules moving. The term 'skinner' is slang for someone who might 'skin' or outsmart a mule. Mules have a characteristic of being very stubborn so outsmarting them to make them move used skill, wit and a type of determination."

The mule-driven freight industry was big in America before the invention of the steam engine. Jimmie Rodgers recorded a song about a muleskinner in 1931, and it's been covered by many people since, including Bill Monroe, Dolly Parton and Van Morrison. Rodgers called it "Blue Yodel #8," but it's more often referred to as "Mule Skinner Blues." (Frankie Laine's '50s hit, "Mule Train," is unrelated.) We'll be hearing the Christmas version again shortly. "Reindeer Skinner Blues" is my second-favorite Christmas song, right after "Jingle Bell Rock."

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