July 13, 2005


As explained in a story by Duncan Campbell and Sandra Laville in the Guardian:

Four men, between 18 and 30, three of them with West Yorkshire addresses and all of them British, met up at Luton station before boarding a Thameslink train to King's Cross last Thursday morning.

It appears that the four, described by security sources as "cleanskins" - with no convictions or known terrorist involvement - reached their rendezvous via two or three hired cars, one of which had been located yesterday at Luton station. Explosives were found in the car, police revealed last night.

Cleanskin is a new word for me, but the OED has "clean-skin (Austral.), an unbranded cow; (slang) a person with a clean police record (see also quot. 1941)":

1881 A. C. GRANT Bush Life in Queensl. I. xv. 209 All hands are anxious to try their luck with the *clean-skins.
1931 F. D. DAVISON Man-Shy (1934) ix. 130 She was not a cleanskin; the Mirramilla brand was on her rump.
1934 Bulletin (Sydney) 1 Aug. 46/3 Lifted them cleanskin micks while Morney was in town. 1936 M. FRANKLIN All that Swagger ix. 83 Delacy began the trapping and branding of cleanskin cattle.
1941 BAKER Dict. Austral. Slang 18 Cleanskin, a person of integrity, esp. in a political sense.
1945 -- Austral. Lang. vii. 141 A man who has had no convictions recorded against him is a cleanskin.
1950 ‘N. SHUTE’ Town like Alice 263 A poddy's a cleanskin, a calf born since the last muster that hasn't been branded.
1967 C. DRUMMOND Death at Furlong Post x. 126, I just dictated a report that they seem clean-skins.
1969 Daily Mirror (Sydney) 12 Mar. 11/4 Had he been a clean-skin..Mr Byrne might have..not recorded a conviction.

These days in Australia, cleanskin is apparently used for "unbranded" in a different sense, specially with respect to wine. Thus "Cleanskin Kings Australia is a business dedicated to offering premium cleanskin wines, from Australia's finest wine regions", explaining that "Cleanskin wine (unlabelled wine) take [sic] the pretension out of 'label drinking' & emphasise the quality of the wine rather than valuing the wine on it's [sic] price". And from a recent feature in Australia's The Age:

In Milawa, the Brown Brothers Winter Festival spills over three days with a feast of (yes, you guessed right) wine, food and jazz. On Sunday, visitors to Gapsted Wines can taste from the barrels of more than 40 wines, including old museum stock, current releases and previously unreleased cleanskins.

The announcement of the bombers' identities came too late to save Sarah Boxer from embarrassing herself in a July 12 NYT article on the We're not afraid website:

But more and more, there's a brutish flaunting of wealth and leisure. Yesterday there were lots of pictures posted of smiling families at the beach and of people showing off their cars and vans. A picture from Italy shows a white sports car and comes with the caption: "Afraid? Why should we be afraid?"

A few days ago, We're Not Afraid might have been a comfort. Today, there's a hint of "What, me worry?" from Mad magazine days, but without the humor or the sarcasm. We're Not Afraid, set up to show solidarity with London, seems to be turning into a place where the haves of the world can show that they're not afraid of the have-nots.

But as Sandra Laville and Ian Cobain explained in the Guardian a few hours later:

Ten days ago Shahzad Tanweer, a 22-year-old British Asian, was playing cricket in the local park with his friends. It was something he loved to do. He was a sporty young man who loved martial arts, drove his dad's Mercedes and had many friends in the Beeston area of Leeds.

"He is sound as a pound," said Azi Mohammed, a close friend. "The idea that he was involved in terrorism or extremism is ridiculous. The idea that he went down to London and exploded a bomb is unbelievable.

They don't mention what color his dad's Mercedes is.

Update: apparently the wine-industry meaning has taken over entirely from the unbranded cattle and first-time criminals, at least among some Australians. Danielle McCredden writes from down under:

"Cleanskins" in the sense of unbranded wine is now in very widespread usage in Australia - perhaps due to a glut in the wine market, vintages and blends which do not quite measure up to the high standards of the vineyard are sold unlabelled (with only the required information about region, blend, alcohol content etc) so as to save on marketing and other expenses. In turn, cleanskins are universally seen as a source for wine which is better quality than its price.

The use of "cleanskins" in the sense of without criminal conviction is unheard of, in fact I had never heard this meaning of the word before you mentioning it in your post. The word does have a vague association with youth and innocence - if you were to describe someone as "clean-skinned" it would imply more than just good facial hygiene, also suggesting a notion of innocence or naiveté).

Well, the OED treats clean-skinned separately. And a roughneck isn't necessarily rough necked, while a roughhouse needn't have anything to do with a house at all. But Danielle's note suggests that the compound cleanskin is still somewhat compositional for Australians. ]

[Update #2: David Nash, also from Oz, has different reactions--

In contrast to Danielle McCredden, I was only faintly aware of the wine sense of 'cleanskin'; whereas I disagree that "'cleanskins' in the sense of without criminal conviction is unheard of".

Well I suspect Danielle is in a younger generation -- I'm sure the "no convictions" sense is familiar to me, as borne out by the quotations you have from the OED. And I recall using it myself in a context of bringing into a court case a fresh expert witness with no prior involvement in the particular case. And, as you say, it is quite separate from 'clean-skinned'.


[Update #3: a 7/14/2005 story in the Washington Times by Paul Martin says that the Mercedes was red, and it was Tanweer's own car, not his dad's:

The previous evening, Tanweer, who had been studying sports at college, had greeted friends cheerfully as he drove his brand-new red Mercedes-Benz.

The car had just been given to him by his adoring father, Mohammed Tanweer, who immigrated to Britain from Pakistan 30 years ago.

Other stories cited the red Mercedes are here and here.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at July 13, 2005 12:05 AM