Friday, May 11, 2018

A Tale of Two Executions - an Etymology of Twenty-Three, as in 23 Skidoo!

A Tale of Two Executions

The catch-phrase, “Twenty-three, Skidoo,” was one of the most popular slang expressions of the early twentieth century.   The Vaudevillian, Billy Van, introduced the expression in his act no later than April, 1906.[i]
New York Clipper, Volume 4, Number 9, April 21, 1906, page 258.
The expression, meaning “to leave in a hurry” or “get lost,” combines, for redundant emphasis, two earlier, separate slang words, each having the same meaning.

“Skidoo” is almost certainly from “skedaddle,” which first appeared in pre-Civil War Kansas and Missouri as early as 1859 (and possibly 1857) and gained widespread use following the Union army’s recapture of Munson’s Hill overlooking Washington DC in October 1861.

“Twenty-three’s” origins are less certain, but new evidence increasingly suggests that it was derived from the final scene of Charles Dickens’ classic novel, A Tale of Two Cities, in which the knitting women chant “twenty-three” as Sidney Carton’s head falls as the twenty-third person beheaded on a particularly bloody day during the “reign of terror” in revolutionary France.

The earliest known example of “twenty-three” in print suggested the connection as early as 1899, and in 1906, during the height of the “twenty-three, skidoo” craze, several more articles did as well.

I have found one more reference, falling between 1899 and 1906, which makes the same connection. 

In 1902, the city of Asheville, North Carolina was caught in the grip of a political controversy related to proposed crack-down on stray dogs and the election of a new dog catcher.

Asheville Daily Gazette (Asheville, North Carolina), September 27, 1902, page 4.

The controversy did not end when the city hired a new dog catcher.

Asheville Daily Gazette, October 16 1902, page 5.

A critic of the new plan compared the “reign of terror” on man’s best friend to the use of the guillotine in revolutionary France:

A Successful Reform

From the tale of two cities, by Charles Dickens, chapter XIII.

. . . As The Vengeance descends from her elevation to do it, the tumbrils begin to discharge their loads.  The ministers of Sainte Guillotine are robed and ready.  Crash! – A head is held up, and the knitting-women who scarcely lifted their eyes to look at it a moment ago when it could think and speak, count One.

The second tumbrel empties and moves on; the third comes up.  Crash! – and the knitting-women, never faltering or pausing in their work, count Two. . . .

[(As Sidney Carton, the protagonist, ascends the platform)] The murmuring of many voices, the upturning of many faces, the pressing on of many footsteps in the outskirts of the crowd, so that it swells forward in a mass, like one great heave of water, all flashes away.  Twenty-Three.


. . . The day of the massacre of the innocents arrived.  The dog catcher became the dog killer.  He had got 25 cents for each dog for catching, he was to have a small additional amount for slaying them.  Men, who in time past decreed the wholesale slaughter of their own kind, hand now decreed that of man’s best and most faithful friend.  They had been responsible for the dogs, and were ending that responsibility by death.

For the guillotine, this reign of terror was to have the shotgun; for the knitting women, boys would hang on the fence to learn lessons of humanity.

Mary Ann was standing just outside the stockade, and near the place of execution.  She saw it all.  She watched and counted, even as the boys hanging to the top of the fence watched and counted.

Most of the dogs, glad to get out into the light of day once more, wagged their tails and barked joyously, looking up into the face of the executioner as he pulled the trigger.  Often he did not aim well, and a second shot was necessary.  After the killing was over, it was found that one of the first to fall was still alive.

Mary Ann’s heart leaped into her throat.  The assistant executioner was bringing out an ornery little yellow cur, with a flea-bitten appearance, and good for nothing whatever in the world, save to love Mary Ann.

The first day’s batch had been a large one, and the bloody work had been going on for a long while.  As Solomon [(Mary Ann’s dog)] fell the boys on the fence said “twenty-three.”

Mary Ann counted no longer.  She had had just one possession in the world.

Asheville Daily Gazette (Asheville, North Carolina), October 19, 1902, page 10.

[i] Word sleuth Barry Popik uncovered the earliest known example of the slang expression “twenty-three” in print.  See, “Twenty-Three Skidoo (23rd Street myth), The Big Apple etymological dictionary, citing The Morning Herald (Lexington, Kentucky), March 17, 1899, page 4.