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Twenty-three Skidoo

Q From William Mathis: Can you please tell us about the popular phrase 23 skidoo from the roaring twenties?

A It does usually evoke the period of the flappers and speakeasies in the US, though its heyday was really the first decade of the century; by the 1920s it was already rather passé. Today it’s defunct in daily speech, though it is remembered and writers resurrect it as an easily recognised flag for the period (the wrong one, as I say, but never mind); skidoo by itself has a faint residual existence and has been borrowed as a trade name for a snowmobile or motorised toboggan. Both skidoo and the full phrase 23 skidoo mean to “go away”, “beat it”, “scram” or suggest that the person addressed should get out while the going’s good.

The usual story about its origins, quite certainly fictional, takes us to the corner of Twenty-third Street and Broadway in New York City. This is the location of the famous Flatiron Building, constructed in 1902 and later nicknamed for its triangular shape that resembles an old-fashioned flat iron. This corner — it is said — became notorious as an especially windy spot, partly due to the shape of the building. Young men would gather in the hope that a gust would blow a woman’s skirt up to provide them with a momentary voyeuristic thrill; it is also said that the local cops would chase them away with a shout of “Twenty-three skidoo!” Don’t believe a word of it. However, there’s some slight supporting evidence for a link with Twenty-third Street — though not the Flatiron building — from an Edison film of August 1901, What Happened on 23rd Street, New York City. A young couple deep in conversation walk towards the camera; the woman steps on a ventilation grille in the pavement, which blows her floor-length skirts to knee height, a titillating image for the period. The Edison catalogue described it like this:

The young lady’s skirts are suddenly raised to, you might say an almost unreasonable height, greatly to her horror and much to the amusement of the newsboys, bootblacks and passersby. This subject is a winner.

That salacious comment says it all. Even if it wasn’t an influence on the rise of the expression (which it certainly wasn’t), I’ll bet my bottom dollar it contributed to the gestation of the story about where it came from.

There’s no difficulty over the true origin of skidoo, since it’s almost certainly a variant of skedaddle, a nineteenth-century word of unknown origin that has the sense of “go away, leave, or depart hurriedly”, as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it. Skidoo is recorded from early in the century:

“Now, that’s enough,” interposed Maudo, “let’s skidoo.” And they skidooed with smiles and backward glances.

Washington Post, 25 Dec. 1904.

A puzzling fact that doesn’t fit the skedaddle origin is that a barque called Skidoo was reported as arriving in New York from Norway in May 1872 and that a yacht of the same name took part in races off New York from the late 1870s into the early 1900s. Perhaps the word had a meaning now lost to us?

The evidence suggests that the 23 part came along a little before skidoo and was a distinct slang term with much the same sense:

By the way, I have come upon a new piece of slang within the past two months and it has puzzled me. I just heard it from a big newsboy who had a “stand” on a corner. A small boy with several papers under his arm had edged up until he was trespassing on the territory of the other. When the big boy saw the small one he went at him in a threatening manner and said: “Here! Here! Twenty-three! Twenty-three!” The small boy scowled and talked under his breath, but he moved away. A few days after that I saw a street beggar approach a well-dressed man, who might have been a bookmaker or horseman, and try for the usual “touch.” This man looked at the beggar in cold disgust and said: “Aw, twenty-three!” I could see that the beggar didn’t understand it any better than I did. I happened to meet a man who tries to “keep up” on slang and I asked the meaning of “Twenty-three!” He said it was a signal to clear out, run, get away.

Washington Post, 22 Oct. 1899. The speaker is George Ade, a newspaperman from Chicago, whose book Fables in Slang had just been published. The article wrote of it, “Mr Ade has gathered up the vernacular of the period, the irreverent metaphor, the far-fetched simile, and the words coined in the street.” Note the quotation marks around keep up; in the sense of staying abreast of a topic it was then new and slangy.

Nobody has been able to put forward a really plausible origin for this numerical interjection. Many suggestions have been made, such as the two that follow, none of which are supported by even the slenderest evidence:

The Only Way was a stage adaptation of Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities by two Irish clergymen, Freeman Wills and Frederick Langbridge. In the last act, it is claimed, a woman knitting at the guillotine counted off the victims as they were executed and that the hero Sydney Carton was the twenty-third, that number being the final words of the play. The implication is that theatre-goers adopted 23 as a synonym for going home, from where it spread and changed its meaning. The big problem with this much-quoted origin that the play was first performed — at the Lyceum Theatre, London — in February 1899; it is improbable in the extreme in the days before mass communications that only a few months later the saying could have reached Chicago.

• Eric Partridge suggested it might be a hangover from the slang of telegraphers, who used numerical codes as abbreviations of common expressions; 30 was “end of message”, for example, which American journalists still on occasion put at the end of pieces, though the rationale for doing so has long since passed. It is said that 23 meant something like “go away!”. Sadly for the ingenious idea, code dictionaries of the period do not use 23 in any way that could be turned into the slang sense.

One suggestion that carries more weight than the others was pointed out to me by Jonathon Green, editor of Chambers Slang Dictionary — Will Irwin’s Confessions of a Con Man of 1909. Irwin described a gambling game using eight dice. He called it cloth, the name coming from a sheet of green felt that was marked off in squares numbered eight to forty-eight, each giving the result of a throw. The key point is that square 23 was marked lose. Will Irwin commented, “I don’t need to say that ‘twenty-three’, as slang, comes from this game. The circus used it for years before it was ever heard on Broadway.” To be strict about it, it’s not proof of anything as it stands, because we have only this one reference to the game and to the meaning of the number, but on the face of it, it’s a plausible origin.

What we do know is that, by 1906 (a few years earlier according to some anecdotal reports), the two halves of the phrase had been conjoined to make the even more expressive doubled epithet:

Fire companies are having troubles of their own in getting music for the next biennial parade. One company negotiating with a band out of town has been informed that if it wants that particular brand of music it will have to pay $6 per man for the ordinary musicians and $12 for the leader for the day with expenses. If the engine company is independent enough it will wire to the band “23 skidoo” according to the members’ idea in the matter.

New Brunswick Daily Times, 21 Mar. 1906.

An accidental result of the creation of 23 skidoo has been the bafflement of generations of researchers. We’re now much nearer an answer than ever before, but the crucial bits of evidence to settle its origin may elude us for ever.

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Page created 16 Jan 2010