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Vitamin Q: the book!

~ Saturday, August 31, 2002

The unusual phrase 'twenty three skidoo' (meaning, broadly, no chance, or get lost) became 'perhaps the first truly national fad expression' in the USA at the beginning of the 1900s. Its origin (as with that of 'OK') has been much discussed by word-lovers. Here are some possibilities for its derivation:

1 It comes from a play version of 'A Tale of Two Cities' where a character counts the prisoners heading for the guillotine. The hero Carton was number 23, and her weepy cry of this number became a Broadway catchphrase. Skidoo (or skiddoo) was added 'for the enlightenment of anyone who hadn't seen the play'.

2 The word and the number were both displayed on pennants and armbands at shore resorts (for unexplained reasons) around 1900 and the two got added together to form the nonsense phrase.

3 'Twenty three' as a euphemism for 'get lost' originates in a play called Little Johnny Jones by George M Cohan where the phrase is used by an old time trouper from 'Frisco'.

4 It is a version of SKYDDU, a word painted on walls as a rain omen (a pun on 'sky dew').

5 It was once part of a telegraphic code where numbers stood for common phrases; 23 was the code for 'away with you!'.

source: Catch Phrases by Eric Partridge (1977)

A reader (thanks Ken) reminds me that another suggestion has to do with the Flatiron building in NYC, a wedge shaped block which stands on 23rd Street. It is said that strange wind currents roused by the building's shape would cause ladies' skirts to be blown up. Hence policemen shooing voyeurs with the "23 skidoo!"

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