Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Skedaddle, Scram, Scoot

I found myself uttering the rather colorful word "skedaddle" this evening as I was preparing to leave work. "Let's skedaddle!" I cried, as I attempted to roust the lethargic troops from their iPod and YouTube-induced daze. You'd think going home would be the one thing you could get people enthusiastic about, but you'd be wrong.

This led me to wondering about the source of this odd yet strangely pleasing word, so here we go - the answer is, no one really knows. Apparently the word suddenly began appearing in newspaper articles and whatnot in 1861, during the Civil War. The first known use of it in print was in the New York Tribune of August 10th, in which a Union soldier reported, “No sooner did the traitors discover their approach than they ‘skiddaddled.'" By 1867, the word had swum across the Atlantic and inserted itself into a work of literature, Anthony Trollope's The Last Chronicle of Barset.

About the most plausible linguistic explanation I can find for the word is that it might be derived from the Scots word skiddle, which means "to spill or scatter." Since there were so many recent immigrants from Scotland in North America at the time, it seems likely that many of them might still have been speaking with traces of that dialect. On the other hand, the theory that it's a contraction of "let's get out of here" is fairly convincing, too – try saying "let sgeddouda heah" a few times fast, and you'll see what I mean.

I find that "scram" is also a useful word in such situations, though it always (rather distractingly) reminds me of how, in Roald Dahl's Charlie & the Great Glass Elevator, the Vermicious Knids like to spell out "SCRAM" just before they attack. "Scram" is either a truncation of "scramble" or a derivation of the German word schramm, "to depart," according to the authorities.

Apparently "SCRAM" is also the term used for an emergency shutdown of a nuclear reactor, which is certainly a situation when I'd be feeling the urge to skedaddle, not that it would probably do much good. As to how that "backronym" might have come about, it seems likely that it was coined in 1942 by Enrico Fermi, who helped develop the first nuclear reactor, Chicago Pile-1 - which, believe it or not, was built on an abandoned rackets court at the University of Chicago. SCRAM probably originally stood for the "Safety Control Rod Axe Man," the guy whose job was to wield an axe to deploy a safety device in case an atomic chain reaction got out of control. Those nuclear scientists were so whacky!

OK, I think that's enough arcane language for tonight! I think it's about time to scoot off to bed.

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