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The Word

Skadoosh!

The story behind the word of the summer.

(MAX NASH/AFP/Getty Images)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Ben Zimmer
June 29, 2008

THE WORD ON the lips of America's movie-going youth is "skadoosh," thanks to the new animated comedy "Kung Fu Panda." It's a sublimely silly word uttered by Po the Panda, as voiced by Jack Black, and Entertainment Weekly and The Washington Post have already anointed it "the word of the summer."

It's hard to say whether "skadoosh" (also frequently spelled "skidoosh") will have the staying power of such classic cinematic coinages as "supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" from "Mary Poppins" or "schwing" from "Wayne's World," but it does have some auspicious forces working in its favor. Among them are historical resonances going all the way back to the Civil War era.

Fans of Jack Black's oeuvre are already familiar with his inventive wordplay. When he first gained attention as one half of the satirical rock duo Tenacious D, he was prone to such neologisms as "inspirado," a zingier version of "inspiration." Determined to find out the inspirado behind "skadoosh," I turned to "Kung Fu Panda" co-director Mark Osborne (who, as it happens, I've known since high school).

"Skadoosh" appears in an explosive action scene at the end of the movie, but it originated as a casual bit of improvisation that Jack Black threw in during an informal read-through of the sequence. As the film was being edited, Osborne made sure that the unscripted exclamation was included in the scene, and the filmmakers found that it worked perfectly.

When "Kung Fu Panda" was first screened to the film crew, the unexpected "skadoosh" was a big hit, and the next day effects supervisor Alex Parkinson showed up with a custom-made "skadoosh" T-shirt. (Jack Black has taken to wearing a similar T-shirt on the promotional tour for the movie.) The studio, DreamWorks, also knew it was on to something. "Skadoosh" was given a prominent place in the trailer for the movie, though it was grafted on to a different scene to avoid giving away its climactic moment.

The sound of "skadoosh" evokes various other fanciful coinages, such as "squadoosh," a pseudo-Italianism meaning "nothing, zilch, squat," favored by ESPN poker commentator Norm Chad, among others. But according to Osborne, Jack Black found his inspirado in an older bit of slang: "23 skidoo," a perplexing phrase that hit it big a century ago, roughly meaning "let's get a move on."

The origin of both the "23" and "skidoo" elements are shrouded in mystery. There's an old story about groups of men watching women's skirts blow up in front of New York's Flatiron Building on 23rd Street, with local constables breaking up the voyeuristic throngs by yelling "23 skidoo!" That story has been firmly debunked by word sleuth Barry Popik, who has traced the "23" slang (sans "skidoo") back to 1899, three years before the Flatiron Building was even built.

"Skidoo" showed up on the scene a bit later, making its earliest known appearance in a 1904 Washington Post article quoting a New York chorus girl: " 'Now, that's enough,' interposed Maude, 'let's skidoo.' And they skidooed with smiles and backward glances." By 1906, "23" had come together with "skidoo" to form the magical phrase. Countless songwriters of the day used it as lyrical fodder. "Skid-oo, skid-oo, You hear it ev'rywhere, Skid-oo, skid-oo, It seems to be in the air," one song went.

Not everyone was pleased with the ubiquitous new buzzword. A writer on women's propriety warned in a 1906 issue of the North American Review that use of "skidoo" was hardly ladylike. "It is a mere substitute for 'skedaddle,' itself of American origin and now regarded by common assent as egregiously vulgar."

Etymologists agree that "skidoo" owes its roots to "skedaddle," most likely via another jocular variant, "scadoodle." The vogue for "skedaddle" first hit during the Civil War, when retreating troops were often described as skedaddling. It actually turns up more than a year before the outbreak of hostilities: a line of dialogue in the Jan. 12, 1860, edition of Wellsboro, Pennsylvania's The Agitator reads, "You'd oughter seen that gang skedaddle."

The historical trail runs cold with "skedaddle," since no one is exactly sure where it might have come from. Noah Webster supposed it was brought by Swedish or Danish immigrants to the Upper Midwest, while others have connected it to a dialectal word from northern England or Scotland meaning "spill, scatter." The Scottish language probably played a vital role in the development of "skedaddle," "scadoodle," and "skidoo," since regional American speech has a number of Scottish-derived verbs for hurried motion starting with the "sk-" sound, like "scoot," "scooch," and "skoosh."

"Skadoosh" just might have legs because it resonates with this grand American tradition of funny-sounding words for sudden, rushing movement. And the second syllable caps it off with a satisfying onomatopoetic "whoosh." Sometimes a momentary ad-lib can encompass a world of linguistic history.

Ben Zimmer is executive producer for the Visual Thesaurus (visualthesaurus.com), where he writes a regular column, Word Routes. Jan Freeman is on vacation.

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