A “skinflint” is a miser, a penny-pincher, literally the “kind of person who would skin a flint to save or gain something.”
The noun “skinflint,” which denotes a niggardly person, is first recorded in A New Dictionary of the Terms Ancient and Modern of the Canting Crew (London, 1699):
“the willingness to go to extreme lengths to save or gain something.”
This is comparable to the French phrase which translates as to “shave an egg,” and is included in A Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues (1611).
The flint in skinflint is the hard stone used to spark fires when struck with iron or steel. Craig M. Carver, lexicographer and managing editor of the Dictionary of American Regional English writes about flint and its role in riflery, and how this inspired the word skinflint:
“[The rifle] used a piece of flint held in a hammerlike device, or ‘cock.’ When the trigger was pulled, the spring-loaded cock struck the flint against a steel plate… creating a shower of sparks. The flash of the priming powder in the pan just beneath the steel plate ignited the charge in the bore and fired the weapon… After repeated firings, the flint wore down. Most riflemen merely replaced the flint, but some penny-pinchers ‘skinned’ or sharpened their flints with a knife.”
The phrase to skin a flint is first recorded in one of the poems introducing the 1656 edition of The Legend of Captain Jones Relating His adventure to Sea: His first landing, and strange Combat with a mighty Bear.
“This were but petty hardship, Jones was one
Would Skinne a Flint, and eat him when h’had done.”
Flint is plentiful and the amount of money one would gain from skinning it would not be worth the trouble. Another popular idiom from the 1700s is “he would skin a louse (or a flea) for the tallow.”