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Pronounced /æbˈskwɒtjuːleɪt/Help with pronunciation

The 1830s — a period of great vigour and expansiveness in the US — was also a decade of inventiveness in language, featuring a fashion for word play, obscure abbreviations, fanciful coinages, and puns. Only a few inventions of that period have survived to our times, such as sockdologer, skedaddle and hornswoggle. Among those that haven’t lasted the distance were blustrification (the action of celebrating boisterously), goshbustified (excessively pleased and gratified), and dumfungled (used up).

Absquatulate, meaning to make off, decamp, or abscond, has had a good run and is still to be found in modern American dictionaries. It was common enough that it became a favourite bête noire of writers on style in the latter part of the century. One was Walton Burgess, who wrote Five Hundred Mistakes of Daily Occurrence in Speaking Pronouncing and Writing the English Language, Corrected, a title that was sufficient in itself to make the strongest heart quail. He included the word in a list of those to be avoided, with this evocative example: “He has absquatulated, and taken the specie with him”. He remarked disdainfully that “ ‘absconded’ is a more classical word”.

A writer in the New Orleans Weekly Picayune in December 1839 noted that the origin of the word lay in squat, to which had been added the Latin prefix ab– (from abscond), meaning “off, away”, and the verb ending –ulate (borrowed from words like perambulate), so making a word meaning to get up and depart quickly. Or, as a writer in the old Vanity Fair magazine in 1875 elaborated: “They dusted, vamosed the ranch, made tracks, cut dirt, hoed it out of there”.

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Page created 03 Aug 2002