Auld Slang’s Time — Frank McNally on an old but now numerically apt American expression: ‘23 skidoo’

The number 23 has many claims to fame

As we say farewell to a troubled year, I’m reminded of an old American slang phrase, long out of currency but now numerically apt.

For a time in the early decades of last century, when people over there were making a hasty or forced exit from any fraught situation, it was de rigueur to say: “23 skidoo!”

Nobody today seems sure how this once vastly popular expression arose. But both halves of the phrase had a prior existence to the whole, each meaning something similar.

The number 23 has many claims to fame. It represents the normal total of chromosomes in human sex cells, the tilt in degrees of the Earth’s access and, thanks to Psalm 23 (“The Lord is my shepherd”), one of the Bible’s most quoted lines.


William Burroughs considered it ominous, for reasons obscure. But it may have been Charles Dickens who accidentally elevated it into US slang, via his tragic hero of A Tale of Two Cities, for whom it certainly was ill-omened.

When Sydney Carton steps forward to do “a far, far better thing ... than I have ever done”, he is the last of 23 prisoners arraigned together.

At the foot of the guillotine, the knitting-women of the revolution count the prisoners’ heads off, including that of the seamstress Carton has comforted at the end, which is number 22.

Then Dickens records his hero’s last impressions: “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 novel was first published in 1859, and subsequent stage versions included a Broadway hit, transferred from London, of 1899.

On that year’s St Patrick’s Day, a Kentucky newspaper identified Dickens’s fingerprints on a new slang phrase “Twenty-three”, that was being used by “the men about town” to mean “move on”, “get out”, or “glad you are gone”.

A writer for the Washington Post heard it too soon afterwards, in a turf war between newspaper boys, one of whom ordered an invader of his patch to “Twenty-three!”.

But the Post ventured alternative explanations of the phrase, neither involving Dickens. One was racecourse slang, based on the maximum number of starters somewhere; the other a supposed code to trigger a prison escape in New Orleans.

In any case, clearly, the number alone had come to mean “leave”. So, around then, had the word “skidoo”, a variant of “skedaddle”. A 1904 musical by the bard of Broadway George M Cohan (misspelt son of a Kerry Keohane) used both expressions separately.

But also around that time, the two were starting to be combined, and Dickens is again implicated.

It is said that the 1899 show was famous enough to be parodied by Broadway comedians using the expression “Twenty-three, skidoo!”.

This may have been in imitation of a phrase already current on the streets.

Meanwhile in San Francisco, there was a rising cartoonist named Thomas Aloysius Dorgan (1877-1929), aka TAD.

He later moved to New York and is credited with inventing or popularising many slang terms, including “cat’s pyjamas”, “drugstore cowboy” and “yes, we have no bananas”. According to his New York Times obituary: “It was he who first said ‘Twenty-three Skidoo’.”

Like Dorgan, “skidoo” may have been another Irish contribution to American culture. The great essayist, journalist, and student of language HL Mencken certainly thought so.

Although he was struck by the general scarcity of imports from Ireland into English dictionaries, he thought the American flair for “intensifying suffixes”, including “no-siree and yes-indeedy, and the later kiddo and skidoo”, was “probably borrowed from the Irish”.

Mencken elaborated: “The Irishman is almost incapable of saying plain yes or no; he must always add some extra and gratuitous asseveration. The American is in like case. His speech bristles with intensives; bet your life, well I guess, and no mistake, and so on. The Irish extravagance of speech struck a responsive chord in the American heart.”

It’s neither here nor there, in this context, but Mencken might have been amused to know that Ireland has a townland named Skidoo. It’s not far from the Dublin Airport, aptly, although there is nothing valedictory about the name. From the Irish Sceach Dubh, it just means “Black Bush”.

This makes it a first-syllable cousin of one of the great Irish placenames, Skeheenarinky. A townland on the Tipperary-Cork frontier, complete with diminishing suffix, that derives from Sceithín an Rince, or “the little bush of the dancing.”

Neither of those is any relation to Skidoo, California, founded in 1906. It was named for the local goldmine, in turn named after the then-trendy slang word, and boomed for about a decade. Then the gold ran out. Whereupon, in keeping with its etymology, Skidoo became, as it remains, a ghost town.