Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Skedaddle

Posted by Elyse Bruce on February 12, 2015

Most of us heard the word skedaddle used when we were children, usually when we were at risk of getting caught by grown-ups for doing something we shouldn’t have been doing in the first place:  Skedaddle!  The word means to run away quickly, and as several generations of children will tell you, skedaddling has saved many a child from a good paddling.

The Milwaukee Journal of July 22, 1927 published an article entitled, “Skedaddle Created by Oberlin College.”  It stated that the Oberlin College alumni were laying claim to the invention of the word, stating that it was a corruption of the Greek word skendannumi which means “to scatter.”  While there’s no doubt that this was a word used by those enlisted with the Union forces, but as to whether its roots lie with Oberlin College or in the Greek lexicon is something that has been hotly debated for generations.

How hotly?  There are others who claim that the word is a mash-up of two British dialect words:  sket and daddle.  The former means “rapidly” while the latter means “to walk unsteadily.”  Still others claim that the word is a mash-up of scatter and rattled but somehow that explanation seems far-fetched even to linguistic hobbyists.  Still, there are many plausible and far-fetched explanations as to the origins of the word skedaddle.

The Kendallville Standard published a story on March 11, 1898 entitled, “Spaniards Must Skedaddle.”  The article reported that the American Senate had recognized Cuba as a republic, and that President McKinley was directed to use as much U.S. military force as needed to force Spain to withdraw from the island.  The story also included additional information on the amendment by Senator Turple of Indiana that was added to the Davis Declaration of Intentions, and voted on.  The Senate resolution was nearly identical to the resolution to the one introduced by Senator Forster of Ohio.

In the July 23, 1862 edition of a newspaper known as The Head Quarters published in Fredericton (New Brunswick, Canada), a poem was published that was said to be republished from a Richmond newspaper.  The poem ran at the end of the newspaper’s report from their army correspondent — a report that included information that Stonewall Jackson was 18 miles east of Washington, and that there was general depression in the army of the Potomac and that, in trying to raise their spirits, the President had sent Christy’s Minstrels to cheer them up.

SKEDADDLE

The shades of night were falling fast
As thro’ a Southern village passed
A youth who bore in hand of ice
A banner, with the strange device —
Skedaddle.”

His hair was red, his toes beneath
Pressed like an acorn from its sheath,
While with a frightened voice he sung
A burden, in the Yankee tongue —
Skedaddle.”

He saw no household fire where he
Could warm his toes or hominy,
Or beg from Southern hand a bone;
Then from the Yankee ‘scaped a grown —
Skedaddle.”

Oh! stay a “cullered pusson” said,
An’ on dis bussum res your head;
The noble patriot winked his eye
But still he answered with a sigh —
Skedaddle.”

Beware Jeff. Davis’ serried ranks —
Beware of “Beargard’s” deadly pranks;
This was the platner’s last good night —
The chap replied far out of sight —
Skedaddle.”

At break of day, as several boys,
From Texan and Carolinian shores,
Were moving Southward, in the air
They heard these accents of despair —
Skedaddle.”

A chap was found, and at his side
A bottle, showing how he died,
Still grasping in his hand of ice
The banner with the strange device —
Skedaddle.”

This proves that the word skedaddle was already in use (and understood) as early as 1862.  In fact, it was used in a number of news articles and stories, including “A Colored Citizen’s Patriotic Speech” which was published in many places including the “Standard Recitations: For Use Of Catholic Colleges, Schools and Literary Societies.”

But my feller-buffers, dis a day to rejoice and kick up yer pedals, and to “Sing song, Polly, can’t you ki-me oh?”  If I may use de expression — and as de balmy zephers wafts its way from the horizon ob all’ de hemispheres — I think I hear de shivalerry sing, “Oh, brudders, let’s skedaddle!” and, my hearers, dey do skedaddle wheneber dey see any ob Uncle Sam’s blue-tail flies arter ’em.

But how much earlier can the word skedaddle be traced?

According to “Notes and Queries: For Readers and Writers, Collectors and Librarians” published in 1856 by publishers Bell and Daldy in London (England), it was identified as a provincialism.  This puts use of the word six years before the American Civil War and so the word existed before the American Civil War and wasn’t as a result of the American Civil War.

Since the publishers of the book are in London, the answer to the age-old question about how the word skedaddle came about is most likely found in Ireland where the word sgadad means “to flee” and ol means “all.”  Therefore sgadad ol means “all flee” which, of course, is the meaning of the word skedaddle.

What this means is that the word, having been referred to as a provincialism, makes the new word skedaddle an Americanism that was well enough known to be recognized as provincialism in England as early as 1856.  Idiomation pegs this word then to the mid 1850s at the latest, with a nod to the Irish sgadad ol.

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