I’ve known people who plan a whole week of near-continuous (and unconscionably expensive) holiday celebrations during the entire final week of the year. Others hit December and realize exactly how many vacation days they haven’t taken during the preceding eleven months and, because their paid time off doesn’t roll over from year to year, take it all at once at the last possible moment.
And every year, these two groups combine to lower productivity in offices around the country during the week between Christmas and New Year’s, leaving the business in the hands of a skeleton crew.
The term skeleton crew means one thing if you’re stuck working the night shift on the Black Pearl, but to the rest of us, it’s an idiom that means “the minimum number of workers needed keep basic services running.” One might hope that a term like skeleton crew would have an interesting history. Did it come from an ancient Saxon story about a haunted Viking ship? Did it appear in a mistranslation of Dante’s Inferno?
According to the Macmillan Dictionary Blog, this term’s history is just plain ordinary. It finds its origin in the idea of the skeleton being the body’s most basic structure. If you peel away all the flesh, the skeleton is still identifiable as human.
From this beginning, skeleton took on a metaphorical meaning as “something reduced to its minimal or essential form.” Whence skeleton crew.
Office workers who find themselves on a skeleton crew this week, whether lolling through a lull or frantically doing the work of a dozen employees, might do well to consider another common idiom: “When the cat’s away, the mice will play” — meaning that when superiors are absent, subordinates take advantage of their relative freedom.
The seed of this idiom dates back in English to the mid-15th century. Shakespeare would have been familiar with it when, in 1599, he put these words into the mouth of the Earl of Westmoreland in King Henry V:
For once the eagle England being in prey,
To her unguarded nest the weasel Scot
Comes sneaking, and so sucks her princely eggs,
Playing the mouse in absence of the cat,
To tear and havoc more than she can eat.
My point here is that, for those of you stuck in nearly empty offices this week, this is a prime opportunity to prank your absent coworkers and managers. Help them start the new year off right with a gift-wrapped desk, or with office supplies embedded in lime Jello, or with a cubicle filled to the shoulders with popcorn.
And when they gape nonplussed at the sight, just smile and call it “the holiday spirit.”
And by all means, share the story of your “holiday spirit” in the comments below.