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Skim means to remove (a substance) from the surface of a liquid. For example, the cream is skimmed from the milk. I was wondering if I could use skim as remove in other cases. For example, our goal was to skim the names of the unwilling candidates from the list. The implication being that our goal was to remove the names of the unwilling candidates from the list.

My question is whether this usage of the word is correct or not.

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    Skim refers particularly to a less dense substance which floats to the top of a liquid. Names can't be said to rise to the top of a list. Dec 2, 2020 at 17:24
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    When you skim a list or report etc you Read (something) quickly so as to note only the important points. Dec 2, 2020 at 17:31
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    You might be understood if you said "to skim off the names..." But only if they are the best (the most willing, maybe) candidates. It's famously the cream that floats to the top. You want the cream! Dec 2, 2020 at 17:40
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    If you want an informal word for that example then cull is used.
    – mdewey
    Dec 2, 2020 at 17:41
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    Sometimes filter. Dec 2, 2020 at 17:41

2 Answers 2

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"Skim" is not a general synonym for "remove" and it is probably not advisable to use it in general to mean remove. The original meaning is specifically to remove the cream that floats to the top of milk. From this there is a metaphoric meaning of "to select the richest or most preferable part of something". One might speak of a law firm as "skimming cases" when the meaning is that they are selecting only the most profitable or simplest cases. The implication is as much one of selecting (the cream) as of removing something.

The term is also used for removing floating debris or items from a liquid, such as "to skim twigs from the pool" or "to skim algae from a pond". In this sense the act is definitely one of removal, not selection, but this sense has not been used metaphorically as often as the "skimming cream" sense.

"Skim" also means "to move lightly over something". This originally referred to the motion of a small sailboat over water. A common metaphoric use of this sense is "to read quickly and shallowly". Indeed that originally metaphoric use has become an independent meaning of the word. It does not imply selection nor removal.

"To remove the names of the unwilling candidates from the list." might be rephrased as ""To trim the names of the unwilling candidates from the list." or "to purge the list of unwilling candidates." either of these would work better and be more natural than "skim" for this meaning. The words "cull" or "filter" suggested in comments, would also work for this meaning. So would "pare", which originally meant to remove a skin from a fruit, or bark from a twig.

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    Yes - trim (or near-synonymous whittle down) are infinitely better metaphorical usages for OP's context. Dec 2, 2020 at 18:27
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For example, the cream is skimmed from the milk.

Skim is used in this context to imply that the cream has floated to the top of the milk and is being removed by passing something under the layer of cream. This is why the word skim is used as it means exactly this.

Skim is used in other ways, but it almost always has to do with the meaning of being "off the top" of something, or not going very deep.

  • If I am interested in buying a book, I may skim through its pages, reading only small portions to get a gist of what the book is like.
  • A business partner in a joint venture may illegally skim off the top of the shared earnings before putting them in the bank.
  • Sometimes birds will skim across the top of a surface of water, barely letting their wings touch.

In your specific example:

For example, our goal was to skim the names of the unwilling candidates from the list.

This could make sense, but the word "remove" would more clearly indicate the intent.

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