Sunday, April 17, 2011


Chicamacomico Races, Outer Banks
Hooray! Taxes are done and so I can get back to business here. A couple of days ago, fellow blogger and poet Kathleen Kirk asked if I did guest requests, and unless it's about, say, particle physics, the answer is yes. She had often wondered where the word 'skedaddle' came from and only come up with a few pieces of information about it, namely that it started to appear during the Civil War and that its origin was unknown. I said I would look into it, with the usual disclaimers. It's not like I have hidden sources of information, after all.

I think we all know pretty much what skedaddle means--at least those of us who are speakers of American English. "To run away or flee" is the general sense of it, but there's a light note in it--I don't think you'd probably hear anyone say "He coldbloodedly murdered his entire family and then skedaddled."

Anyway, the authorities are sticking to the "origin unknown" idea, but there is a bit more to it than that, which is what I'd like to get into here. The Online Etymology Dictionary actually quotes this blog's hero, Anatoly Liberman, in support of this unknown quality, but a closer examination of his book Word Origins and How We Know Them shows that he speculates in an interesting way about the word.

He starts by telling us of a German linguist named Heinrich Schröder who wrote an article about what he called Streckenformen. Sounds very forbidding in a German sort of way, but in fact it just means something like stretched forms, or words that have extensions within them. His idea was that sometimes people add an extra syllable in the middle of a word either to emphasize it, or to make its meaning funnier. The German language has more of these 'extenders' than English does, but slang like 'flibberdegibbet' and 'gobbledygook' with their connecting and unnecessary  'de' syllables in the middle are possible examples of what is, after all, only a theory.

Interestingly, skedaddle cropped up before its 1861 usage. It was in the dialect of Northern England and meant 'to spill', especially milk, but also, perhaps by extension, potatoes, apples and other things that could fall from a cart. Liberman makes an interesting observation when he says that skedaddle is a 'so-called' Americanism, "because American words alien to the British Standard often turn out to be regionalisms brought to the new world from England."  Liberman thinks our skedaddle is most likely related to the English dialect 'scaddle' which means "to scare or frighten: to run off in fright". Sounds plausible, if inconclusive.

As Michael Quinion over at World Wide Words tells it, skedaddle was one of those words that spread like wildfire--for its day and given its media options, it "went viral". It appeared in the New York Tribune on August 10, 1861 in the sentence "“No sooner did the traitors discover their approach than they ‘skiddaddled’, (a phrase the Union boys up here apply to the good use the seceshers make of their legs in time of danger).” As Quinion says, all the early references of this term referred to the war in a similar way. But it quickly morphed in civilian usage to  a more broad sense of 'leaving in a hurry'. It rapidly crossed the Atlantic, appearing in London newspapers by 1862, and  even found its way into Anthony Trollope's Last Chronicle of Barset, which appeared in 1867. 

You can check out the sentence over at Mr. Quinion's place, but let's just say that by the time Lily gets her hands on it, skedaddle has nothing whatsoever to do with the Civil War.


  1. Yippee!! Thank you. The Union soldiers/seceshers connection is perfect in the script I am using!

    And now I will have to read this Trollope, I suppose!!

  2. A really interesting post, Seana.

    I'm forever skedaddling.

    Happy Easter from Dublin.

  3. Fun to know since I just did a storytime of Charlotte Pomerantz's "The Piggy In the Puddle". Get out of there! Skedaddle, daddle, daddle, daddle, daddle.

  4. Kathleen, thinking of doing this post is pretty much what finally dragged me to face the tax work. So thanks!

    I am intrigued about that script!

    I am a little concerned that it might seem like the seceshers were the only ones who skedaddled. The picture of the Chicamacomico Races, which I'd never heard of before, is about a situation where there was much skedaddling on both sides.

    I don't know about having to read Last Chronicle. It's the sixth of a pretty substantial series. I read the first three and really enjoyed them, though.

  5. Maria, I wish I would skedaddle a little more often than I do.

    A very happy Easter to you too. I'm currently suffering an embarrassment of riches as far as Easter gatherings go, which is a good situation to be in.

  6. Collagemama, one of the benefits of working in a bookstore is that I was able to go downstairs and immediately read Piggy in a Puddle, which was delightful. Great support for the idea of people using words for the sheer humorous pleasure of saying them.