A brief history of “skewerings,” online media’s favorite word

This man just got absolutely skewered.
This man just got absolutely skewered.
Image: AP Photo/Achmad Ibrahim
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

As anyone proficient in outdoor grilling knows, a skewer is a “pin of wood or metal for fastening meat to keep it in form while roasting” (as explained by Merriam-Webster). Its verb form, to skewer, means to push said skewer through food—or, metaphorically, through something else, like a person.

Increasingly the word is used by media organizations as the preferred verb for when someone has strong criticism for another person, concept, culture, or school of thought.

Of course that person could also “eviscerate,” “roast,” “own,” “destroy,” “annihilate,” “pillory,” “slam,” “crucify,” “trash,” or “wreck.” These other verbs are used often and interchangeably. But none work quite as well as skewer. There is a particular violence, perhaps, to the image of someone or something being impaled which makes the word especially irresistible for headline news writing.

It’s not a brand-new phenomenon (here’s a USA Today story from 2005 using the verb), but it has really picked up speed over the last few years, and especially in 2016, with the US presidential election in full swing. Online media organizations new and old have all participated in a Game of Thrones-worthy barrage of skewerings:

  • “‘Barbie Savior’ Instagram Account Brilliantly Skewers White Savior Complex”—Mic, April 19, 2016
  • “U.S. Men’s Soccer Players Skewer Abby Wambach On Twitter Following DUI”—Huffington Post, April 4, 2016
  • “Saturday Night Live Cold Open Skewers Trump: ‘Racists Love Me'”—Gawker, March 6, 2016
  • “Twitter Skewered Steve Harvey For Announcing The Wrong Miss Universe Winner”—BuzzFeed, Dec. 20, 2015
  • “Fitch’s AAA Math Skewered by Nordea After Finland Gets Top Grade”—Bloomberg, Sept. 21, 2015
  • “This Menu Generator Deliciously Skewers All the Worst Clichés of Brooklyn Bars”—Slate, Sept. 4, 2015
  • “MTV’s ‘Look Different’ campaign skewers casual racism in the U.S.”—Mashable, July 21, 2015
  • “An Ex-Teacher Made a Video Game that Skewers the No Child Left Behind Act”—Vice, April 9, 2015
  • “Parks & Recreation perfectly skewered our tech-filled future”—Fusion, Feb. 20, 2015
  • “Watch: Tina Fey and Amy Poehler skewer Bill Cosby and his rape allegations”—Vox, Jan. 11, 2015

Lately, the most frequent victim of media skewerings is Donald Trump. Here is but a small taste of recent Trump skewerings:

  • “Jon Stewart and David Letterman emerge from retirement to skewer Donald Trump at USO event”—Salon, May 6, 2016
  • “Watch SNL Skewer Donald Trump’s Raging Sexism”—New York Magazine, April 3, 2016
  • “John Oliver skewers Donald ‘Drumpf'”—CNNMoney, March 1, 2016
  • “‘Dead clown walking’: New York tabloids skewer Donald Trump’s Iowa loss”—Business Insider, Feb. 2, 2016
  • “Watch ‘Sesame Street’ Skewer Trump: ‘Trashiest,’ ‘Grouchiest’ Creature”—The Daily Beast, Sept. 2, 2015

The skewerer-in-chief of the internet is John Oliver, the comedian whose late night HBO show, Last Week Tonight, expertly skewers politicians, governments, corporations, and other entities that require a proper skewering. But apart from making for funny headlines, these skewerings typically don’t lead to any sort of meaningful change by those being skewered.

When it comes to skewerings, Quartz is not above the fray. Since launching in 2012, we’ve published six stories with some variation of the word “skewer” in the headline: three in 2014, one in 2015, and two (so far) in 2016. Three of those skewerings were performed by John Oliver. The other three were executed by comedian Jon Stewart, deceased rapper Tupac Shakur, and US president Barack Obama. Trump was our skewerers’ victim twice. Other victims of skewerings reported at Quartz include CNN, the US government, FIFA, and “Western media.”

Even distinguished newspapers are not immune to reporting on a good old skewering now and then. For example:

  • “Banks Skewer Proposal Limiting Arbitration”—Wall Street Journal, May 5, 2016
  • “‘Inside Amy Schumer’ premiere skewers men making decisions about women’s health”—Washington Post, April 22, 2016
  • “Jesse Tyler Ferguson Skewers Food Culture on Broadway”—New York Times, March 30, 2016
  • “Negative rates skewer money market funds in Japan”—Financial Times, Feb. 2, 2016
  • “Linda Smith cheerfully skewered the Tories with her brilliant barbs”—The Guardian, June 9, 2015

The Great Skewering of the 2010s won’t last forever. Eventually, it will be replaced by some other headline cliché. Until then, you can be sure that no skewering will go unnoticed.