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23 skidoo -- seven theories

Posted by ESC on September 11, 2003

TWENTY-THREE SKIDOO - This is commonly thought of as a 1920s phrase. But one reference says although it's "generally associated with the Roaring Twenties, it had in fact lost its popularity by the mid 1910s." ("Flappers to Rappers: American Youth Slang" by Tom Dalzell (Merriam-Webster, Springfield, Mass., 1996). There are seven theories about the origin of "23 skidoo."

1. In Charles Dickens' "Tale of Two Cities," Sidney Carton is No. 23 of a multitude executed by the guillotine. "In the last act of the theatrical adaptation, 'The Only Way,' an old woman sits at the foot of the guillotine, calmly counting heads as they are lopped off. The only recognition or dignity afforded Carton as he meets his fate is the old woman emotionlessly saying 'twenty-three' as he is beheaded. 'Twenty-three' quickly became a popular catchphrase among the theater community in the early twentieth century, often used to mean, 'It's time to leave while the getting is good.'" ("Who Put the Butter in Butterfly?' by David Feldman, Harper & Row.) The theory that the 1899 play was the source of the phrase is attributed to Frank Parker Stockbridge. (Dalzell referring to "A Dictionary of Catch Phrases," by Eric Partridge, Stern and Day, New York, 1977.)

2. ".in the first few years of the century, memorabilia sold at vacation resorts and fairs were emblazoned with either 23 or Skidoo, and the two soon met. (Dalzell quoting Partridge.)

3. "Tom Lewis originated the fad word '23' in 'Little Johnny Jones' in 1904, and 'Skidoo' was tacked on later. (Dalzell quoting Partridge.)

4. "23 was possibly derived from a telegraphic shorthand code, not unlike trucker CB code, meaning 'Away with you!'" (Dalzell quoting Partridge.)

5. Thomas Aloysius Dorgan (TAD), a cartoonist and sportswriter, coined the phrase. The expression "never appeared in his work" but "the simple 23 did appear in a comic published on February 16, 1902." (Dalzell.) Another source says Cartoonist Dorgan "combined 'twenty-three' with 'skidoo.' Skidoo was simply a fanciful variant of 'skedaddle.'" (Feldman) Skedaddle, according to "The Dictionary of Contemporary Slang" by Tony Thorne, Pantheon Books, originated in the American Civil War and ".suggestions have been made as to the word's derivation; it is probably a form of a dialect version of 'scatter' or 'scuttle.'" TAD "had an undeniably large role in the coining and spreading of slang." (Darzell.) He has been credited with coining "duck soup" and "hotdog." But at least one source says the word "hotdog" was not one of his "inventions": http://www.snopes.com/language/stories/hotdog.htm Accessed September 11, 2003.

6. "23-skidoo" came from an expression that construction workers used while building the Flatiron Building on 23rd Street in N.Y.C. 23rd Street is one of the wider streets in New York that is like an uninterrupted wind-tunnel between the East and Hudson Rivers. Frequently, when one is walking north or south on the avenues and comes to such an intersection, they can experience a sudden blast of wind as soon as the pass the wall of a corner building. Apparently, when the workers sat on the sidewalk to eat their lunches, they would watch women's skirts blow up from the sudden gusts. "I had long been told that these workers called this phenomenon a '23-skidoo.'" March 15, 2003, post on The Phrase Finder discussion forum. http://www.phrases.org.uk/bulletin_board/index.html

7. The phrase originated in the Panimint Mountains in Death Valley in the early 1900s. The mining town of Skidoo had 23 saloons and if you were going to go get drunk you would try to get a drink at each of the saloons. This started the phrase of going "23 skidoo" if you were going to have a good time. Only two buildings in skidoo were wood. All the others were canvas. September 19, 2000, post on The Phrase Finder discussion forum.