“Skedaddle” means to run away, flee in a panic, retreat quickly.

The origin is almost totally obscure. It first appears in the 1860s as American Civil War military slang. “As soon as the rebs saw our red breeches … coming through the woods they skedaddled.” There’s a hint there of cowardice under fire, but as the word gained popularity in civilian use, it came to mean simply “to run away.”

It may be the alteration of British dialect “scaddle” (to run off in a fright). The English Dialect Dictionary, compiled at the end of the1800s, says it may be from Scots “skiddle,” meaning to splash water about or spill. The Cassell Dictionary of Slang suggests this transferred to the US through “the image of blood and corpses being thus ‘spilled and scattered’ on the battlefield before the flight of a demoralized army.” Another theory is that “skedaddle” is rooted in the Irish word sgedadol, also meaning “scattered.” 

Its first appearance in print, in the New York Tribune of August 10, 1861, was: “No sooner did the traitors discover their approach than they ‘skiddaddled’, (a phrase the Union boys up here apply to the good use the seceshers make of their legs in time of danger).”

In an 1862 musical satire, the anonymous author uses the fashionable new slang term to underline his message. The last lines of the lyric are, “He who fights and runs away, / May live to run another day.”

It quickly crossed the Atlantic, being recorded in the Illustrated London News in 1862 and then used in the dialogue of a young lady character by Anthony Trollope in his novel The Last Chronicle of Barset in 1867: “‘Mamma, Major Grantly has — skedaddled.'”

The Atlantic Monthly of January 1877 has a different take on the word’s source. “We used to live in Lancashire and heard skedaddle every day of our lives.  It means to scatter, or drop in a scattering way.  If you run with a basket of potatoes or apples and keep spilling some of them in an irregular way along the path, you are said to skedaddle them.”

I’ve never been in the military and the origin of skedaddle is a mystery. But I do know how to say it another way: Get the hell out of Dodge!

  One thought on “skedaddle

  1. how9473
    March 14, 2021 at 8:06 am

    I love your explanations. I always thought skedaddle meant to hurry up now I hear the element of retreat in defeat. Thanks for sending these -always fascinating and pithy to read.

    Liked by 1 person

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