“Clowning around, acting up, horsing around, showing off, showboating” — all of these are terms that probably bring energetic pranks to mind. While researching the “Squog” section of
Manchester, New Hampshire, I came across a sad newspaper notice about one George Lambert, age 17, who drowned while swimming with friends. The description of his behavior just prior to his death
was that of “skylarking.”
The term skylarking was used in New Hampshire as early as 1830, mostly when describing the ‘misbehavior’ of sailors. One source states that the word originally referred to sailors who would run up and down the rigging of a ship in sport. If you have ever watched a skylark you can understand the comparison.
‘Skylarking’ was used frequently enough in the 1830’s that it leads me to believe that it was used much earlier in the nautical community than when I first find it published in the Dover Gazette & Strafford Advertiser (Dover NH) Oct 12, 1830. In an earlier publication outside of New Hampshire, The Louisville Public Advertiser (Louisville KY) of July 17, 1824 refers to “skylarking, or what we once called in New England, water melon frolics.”
In 1847 the New-Hampshire Patriot, Concord NH describes a celebration on board a ship when, “dancing, skylarking, and other nautical pastimes followed.” Skylarking continued to be a navy-speak term used in the United States to describe a sailor’s horseplay or goofing off, during both World War I and II. Though it was an almost expected event during the times of masted ships, today this sort of on-board behavior is generally discouraged.