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Skedaddle to the movies

BEST IN THE WEST: Ricardo Montalban, Victor Jory and Gilbert Roland portraying War Chief Little Wolf, Chief Tall Tree and Chief Bull Knife in John Ford’s 1960s western Cheyenne Autumn.When I was a young boy atCardiff, one of my mother’s favourite words was skedaddle.
Nanjing Night Net

I took “skedaddle” to mean something like “get lost”.

On a cold and wet day recently I watched the movie Cheyenne Autumn.

John Ford’s film told the story of 300 half-starvedCheyennes’ long walk from the reservation in theOklahomaTerritoryto their home inWyoming.

Twice in the movie they used the word skedaddle. I said to my wife “Here’s where they say skedaddle” but she wasn’t that interested.

The second time,a man near a railway line was asked if he had seen them and he replied that they seemed “to have skedaddled”.

TheCheyennes’ walk started in 1878. My thoughts were that the word skedaddleddidn’t enter the English language until well after this.

Investigations showed that I was wrong in the assumption. It was an American Civil War word, although I still wonder how this backwoods man standing in the snow beside the railway line in the middle of nowhere and warming his hands by a fire knew of the word skedaddle.

My bigOxfordsays the word skedaddle, of uncertain origin, was probably Swedish or Danish, and it became prominent in the Civil War.

The American Civil War lasted from 1861 to 1865. Also spelt skidaddle, the word’s meaning was something like fleeing the battlefield.

History of skedaddle

The word, according to Michael Quinion, crossed theAtlanticquickly and appeared in Anthony Trollope’s novel The Last Chronicle of Barset in 1867.

Although some words in other languages have sounded similar to skedaddle, almost nobody can pinpoint the word’s origins.My bigOxfordsays the word is colloquial, and adds “probably a fanciful formation”.

August 10, 1861, is the first use in print that I could find. On that day the New York Tribune said: “No sooner did the traitors discover their approach than they ‘skidaddled’ (a phrase the Union boys up here apply to the good use the seceshers make of their legs in time of danger).”

The big dictionary says that in general use the word means to depart hurriedly. It could find only one use of skedaddle in the milk sense when the New York Times in 1863 said somebody was “skedaddling all that milk”.

I have no idea what that meant.


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