Holographic Language: Skedaddle


Words aren’t just signs for things, they are Holographic. Each word has a history, often stretching back through human linguistic history. Every time we speak, write, or listen, not only information is being conveyed, but each word’s connections to everything else.

Some word histories are puzzling. One of our American slang terms is a good example: Skedaddle.

We don’t hear this word used as frequently as we used to; however, it is still current. It means to leave hurriedly, sometimes in a state of confusion or disarray, but always in a rush. Michael Quinion gives a good run-down of its known and putative history on his Blog World Wide Words. In a nut-shell: It came to popularity during the U.S. Civil War, and scholars have variously connected it to the Scots skittle (to spill), as in the 19th Century English Dialect Dictionary, or even to the Classical Greek σκεδάννυμι skedannumi, to scatter or disperse, John Hotten’s theory in his Dictionary of Modern Slang (1874).

That’s actually the first possible etymology I learned, when I came across σκεδάννυμι in my Greek studies at Yale, and later at Fordham. Tempting as it might be, however, there is no direct path connecting the two words.

We do get a clue, however, if we go back to Proto-Indo-European, the reconstructed roots at the beginning of our vast linguistic family stretching from India to Ireland, and now all around the planet. Here’s how Toponymist Antonio Sciarretta catalogs the root in his very helpful site Ancient Toponymy:

*(s)ked- ‘to crush, scatter’

Reconstructed from Sanskrit skhadate (*skned-) ‘he splits’, Armenian sert(*skedri-) ‘log’, Greek skedannumi ‘I split’, Albanian tshanj (*sked-ni-o) ‘I split’, English scatter, Lithuanian skederva ‘sliver’, Old Church Slavonic skodu ‘poor, small’. Suffixed O-grade form *skod-ra in Scodra (Illyricum).

Toponymy, by the way, if you haven’t figured it out yet, is the study of place names, from the Greek τόπος tópos, a place, and ὄνομα ónoma, a name. It is one part of the study of all kinds of names, onomastics, itself also from Classical Greek: ὀνομαστικός onomastikos, about naming [1][2] and ὀνοματολογία onomatologia, ὄνομα ónoma, name[3] — Thank you Wikipedia!

So our slang term Skedaddle may well stretch all the way back through time and geography. As to why it surfaced when it did, that is a story still to be told. Nonetheless, when we use this word, it is holographic…all of its history over milennia and miles manifests when we use it.

This is not a new idea. For the ancient Egyptians (whose language is still alive in the Coptic Christian Church Liturgy), and the ancient Hebrews (whose language has been revived as a national language today), their words were not just signs. When you wrote or spoke a word, its reality was evoked. Can we do any less with the gigantic world language we have in English? Choose your words carefully: words, like thoughts, manifest in reality.

Let’s find some additional holographic words to discuss!

Enjoy March!

— Steven A. Armstrong
Language Tutor, Editor, Consultant