The early-twentieth century slang expression, “twenty-three,” meaning, “get lost” or “take a hike,” dates to at least 1899. It may sound far-fetched, but circumstantial evidence suggests that it was derived from the beheading scene at the end of Charles Dickens’, A Tale of Two Cities. The hero, Sydney Carton, is the twenty-third person in line for the guillotine; the knitting women in the crowd count off each execution; “Twenty-three!” He’s gone.
“Skidoo” appeared in print as early as 1904 meaning, “to leave quickly;” but had also been the name of a racing boat since 1901. The fact that the race-related usage, perhaps suggestive of going fast, is consistent with the meaning of the slang expression, may indicate that “skidoo” was known as early as 1901. Similarities between the sound and meaning of “skidoo” and “skedaddle” (which dates to just prior to the Civil War) suggest that “skidoo” was derived from skedaddle. Three, short-lived euphemisms for automobiles from the early 1900s (“skedaddle wagon,” “skidoodle wagon,” and “skidoo wagon),” however, more clearly show a direct relationship between “skidoo” and “skedaddle.”
“Twenty-three” and “skidoo” existed independently for a few years, without evidence of widespread use of either one. That all changed in 1905, when both expressions, often linked together, rocketed to widespread, ubiquitous use. Contemporary sources attribute the surge in the popularity to George M. Cohan’s[i] musical, Little Johnny Jones, the show that introduced the hit songs, “Give My Regards to Broadway,” and “I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy”.
The written record for “twenty-three,” starts with an interview with the writer, George Ade, published in October 1899:
“By the way, I have come upon a new piece of slang within the past two months and it has puzzled me. I first heard it from a big newsboy who had a ‘stand’ on a corner. A small boy with several papers under his arm had edged up until he was threatening the territory of another. When the big boy saw the small one, he went at him in a threatening way and said: ‘Here, here! Twenty-three! Twenty-three!’ The small boy scowled and talked under his breath, but he moved away.”
The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, October 22, 1899, page 34.
The date of the interview may be significant in determining how old the expression was at the time. George Ade was no casual observer of slang; in 1896, he had published the successful book, Artie, which made prominent use of slang:
The author, Mr. Ade, should grasp the fact that an abundance of slang does not give the measure of a human creature, nor, even when it is most adequate to that task, does it make him necessarily interesting. The hero of “Artie” is, briefly, a bore.
The New York Tribune, January 3, 1897, page 2.
His book Fables in Slang, released in November of 1899, cemented his reputation as a connoisseur of slang:
In his latest book, “Fables in Slang” (H. S. Stone & Co), Mr. Geroge Ade leaves the implications of his former character-studies and indulges in social satire, some of it pathetically humorous, some of it bordering closely on coarseness and vulgarity, and all of it coming near to making the use of slang a fine, even a literary, art.
The Dial, Volume 27, Number 322, November 16, 1899, page 370.
In 1906, “Prof. Frederick Newton Scott of the chair of rhetoric in the University of Michigan” traced the origins of “Twenty-Three,” to the end of Charles Dickens’ classic novel, A Tale of Two Cities (just a few paragraphs before the famous closing line, “It is a far, far better thing I do than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”):
The last scene in the chapter depicts the execution of Sidney Carton, the hero of the story. As the line of those condemned to die advances slowly toward the guillotine, the “knitting women,” keenly interested in the executions, counts the victims as their heads are shorn off by the fatal blade. Carton, the twenty-third person in the line, steps upon the platform the guillotine. Then, says Dickens, “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!”
Arizona Republican, June 15, 1906, page 2, column 1.
At first blush, the explanation sounds ridiculous. A Tale of Two Cities was published in 1859, forty years before “twenty-three” acquired its slang sense. The opening of a stage version of A Tale of Two Cities, weeks before George Ade’s interview, however, may throw a different light on the question. Perhaps it is not so far-fetched after all.
|The Indianapolis Journal, February 1, 1903, part 2, page 8.|
The Only Way, a stage version of A Tale of Two Cities, opened at the Herald Square Theater in New York City on September 16, 1899 after a successful run in London. Within two months, George Ade reported having, “come upon a new piece of slang [(twenty-three)] within the past two months. . . .” Just a coincidence?
|New York Tribune, September 12, 1899, page 14.|
An opening-night review of The Only Way suggests that the execution scene was a prominent feature of the production:
The trial of Charles Darnay forms the climax of the play, and it closes with the execution of Carton, who dies for his friend.
The Salt Lake Herald, September 17, 1899, Editorial Section, page 11, column 3.[ii]
A review of the London production of The Only Way, described the final scenes; and mentioned the calling of the numbers twice:
The fourth act has three harrowing scenes and a final tableau. . . . The third scene is laid in a hall of the Conciergerie, where the numbers of the victims are called in turn, and whence Carton passes out to his self-imposed fate hand in hand with Mimi, who instead of being a chance companion for the guillotine, is brought into earlier acts and is represented as entertaining a hopeless passion for him. The final tableau reveals Carton ascending the scaffold in the triumph of self-sacrifice.
The tableau emphasizes the significance of the title, since it is a moving picture of “the only way” in which the hopeless lover, Sidney Carton, can serve Lucie Manette, and it also enables the actor to repeat the pathetic lines; “It is a far, far better thing that I do than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.” Nevertheless, like much of the expository matter in the play, it is superfluous, since “the only way” is apparent at the end of the scene in the cell and again when Carton’s number is called in the hall of the Conciergerie, and the loud, hoarse roar of the mob is heard from the street.
The New York Tribune, March 3, 1899, page 8.
The gruesome ending of the play was notable, for its time, because it flouted the convention of rewriting stage versions of tragic classics to give audiences a happy ending:
Two of the Rules of the Mangers Successfully Broken.
A Drama Without Comic Relief or Happy End.
No matter how serious the dominating subject of a drama may be, there must be a comic element. That is one rule which American and English managers seek to enforce upon the playwright. No matter who deep the sorrows of the hero or heroine, they must conclude in joy. That is another rule laid down for authors of theatrical fiction in English. But both are broken by Mr. Wills in “The Only Way.” He could not well have brought his version of “A Tale of Two Cities” to any other conclusion for Sydney Carton than the guillotine, but he might have thrust in some low comedy, and it is a wonder that he got a London production of the piece without that concession to the ordinary demand of the theatrical man of business.
. . . The tragedy of Sydney Carton’s sacrifice is all the more valuable for stage use when given without breaks in its somberness. It is a curious fact that “The Ghetto,” after having been played three hundred times in Amseterdam with a logical climax in the death of the heroine, is brought to an absurdly happy end, by her rescue from the river, in the translation used at the Broadway. Well, there was once a version of “Camille,” in which the consumptive girl regained good health and became her lover’s wife.
The Sun (New York), October 6, 1899, page 7.
Like the door slamming shut, at the end of Ibsen's, A Doll’s House, twenty years earlier, the dramatic, somber ending may have made a memorable impact on the audience. The timing of opening night, less than two months before the slang expression is first reported, suggests that there may be an actual connection between “twenty-three” and Sydney Carton’s beheading. I find it convincing; you be the judge.
There is at least one slight hitch in the theory, however; there is at least one report of the slang expression that pre-dates the New York opening of The Only Way. But even that account suggests its origins in A Tale of Two Cities:
For some time past there has been going the rounds of the men about town the slang phrase "Twenty-three." The meaning attached to it is to "move on," "get out," "good-bye, glad you are gone," "your move" and so on. To the initiated it is used with effect in a jocular manner.
It has only a significance to local men and is not in vogue elsewhere. Such expressions often obtain a national use, as instanced by "rats!" "cheese it," etc., which were once in use throughout the length and breadth of the land.
Such phrases originated, no one can say when. It is ventured that this expression originated with Charles Dickens in the "Tale of two Cities." Though the significance is distorted from its first use, it may be traced. The phrase "Twenty-three" is in a sentence in the close of that powerful novel. Sidney Carton, the hero of the novel, goes to the guillotine in place of Charles Darnay, the husband of the woman he loves. The time is during the French Revolution, when prisoners were guillotined by the hundred. The prisoners are beheaded according to their number. Twenty-two has gone and Sidney Carton answers to -- Twenty-three. His career is ended and he passes from view.
The Morning Herald (Lexington, Kentucky), March 17, 1899, page 4 (Barry Popik’s online etymology dictionary, The Big Apple).
Had someone from Lexington, Kentucky been in London recently? Had someone just read the book? Had someone seen Daniel Frohman's production of an earlier adaptation of A Tale of Two Cities, All for Her, starring Mr. and Mrs. Kendal, in 1894? Or is there something else at work here? There is no shortage of alternate theories.
For his part, George Ade did not claim to know the origin of the phrase. He lived in Chicago, however, and may not have been aware of the new play, its climactic beheading, or its possible influence on the creation of the expression. He detailed two origin stories he had heard:
“I happened to meet a man who tries to ‘keep on’ on slang, and I asked the meaning of ‘Twenty-three!’ He said it was a signal to clear out, run, get away. In his opinion it came from the English race tracks, twenty-three being the limit on the number of horses allowed to start in one race. This was his explanation. I don’t know that twenty-three is the limit. But his theory was that ‘twenty-three means that there was no longer any reason for waiting at the post. It was a signal to run, a synonym for the Bowery boy’s ‘On your way!’ Another student of slang said the expression originated in New Orleans at the time that an attempt was made to rescue a Mexican embezzler who had been arrested there and was to be taken back to his own country. Several of his friends planned to close in upon the officer and prisoner as they were passing in front of a business block which had a wide corridor running through to another block. They were to separate the officer and prisoner and then, when one of them shouted ‘Twenty-three,’ the crowd was to scatter in all directions and the prisoner was to run back through the corridor, on the chance that the officer would be too confused to follow the right man. The plan was tried and it failed, but ‘twenty-three’ came into local use as meaning ‘Get away, quick!’ and in time it spread to other cities. I don’t vouch for either of these explanations, but I do know that ‘twenty-three’ is now a part of the slangy boy’s vocabulary.”
The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, October 22, 1899, page 34.
Other common origin stories that emerged during the period of popularity, after 1905, include telegraphs operators’ slang, and gamblers’ slang. The problem with each of those explanations, however, is the lack of pre-1899 evidence of use. Although there is some evidence in the record that explain how or why those explanations were cooked up, there is no evidence of use prior to 1899.
Most of the explanations were offered after 1905, when the expression was widely popular, many years after the expression was coined. Although those explanations may accurately describe use prior to 1905, they do not clearly establish use before 1899. I find the guillotine story more believable.
There are quite a few sources that refer to horse races that ran with twenty-three horses at the start. To be fair, there are quite a few more references to horse races with other numbers; but perhaps the frequent occurrence of twenty-three at least explains why someone might believe that it could have been the origin of the phrase:
The [Chesterfield] Nursery was a big prize of one thousand sovereigns, but still we had not expected to see twenty-three horses at the post for it. It carried us back to old times, indeed.
Baily’s Magazine of Sports and Pastimes, Volume 43, December 1884, page 243.
Twenty-three horses started the “Derby stakes” at Epsom Downs in London, in 1827, 1830, 1831, 1843, 1848, 1850, 1858, 1872, and 1879.[iii] Twenty-three horses started the “Chester Cup” race in 1859. The Queen of Spain attended a race in Spain, in 1858; in which twenty-three horses started (she also witnessed the death of six bulls within a two-hour span the same day). Twenty-three horses also started the “Kenner Stakes” in 1897.
A well-known series of four prints depicts the Vale of Aylesbury Steeple Chase, a race that was run in 1836. An catalogue for an auction held in 1910 describes Plate II of the series as a, “most pleasing example illustrating this famous steeple chase in which twenty-three horses and their riders are participating . . . .”[iv]
Although there is some evidence that some horse races, most notably the Derby at Epsom Downs in London, often ran with twenty-three horses, other numbers are also common. It is not clear, however, that there was ever a hard-fast rule that could have spawned the slang expression. Nor is there any explanation for how or why the expression first emerged among newsboys in Chicago. The role that telegraphers played in spreading slang, generally, however, may provide some insight.
Telegraph Operators and Slang
How Slang Travels.
The choicest bit of slang of the age lay concealed in the ticks of their instruments for years before George Cohan rescued it and put it to work in one of his musical comedies. Telegraph operators have been saying “23” to each other over the wire for a number of years; but no one knew anything about it. A great many people are still unaware of the fact that this bit of slang originated with telegraph operators; for only a short while ago a writer ventured the opinion that the term “23” was of biblical origin, and cited the twenty-third verse of the sixteenth chapter of Matthew as the probable place.
Evening Star (Washington DC), February 13, 1910, page 16.
Although the story suggests that telegraph operators used the expression before, “George Cohan rescued it,” George Cohan did not “rescue it” until Little Johnny Jones opened in late-1904. The expression was already at least five years old at the time, even if it had not yet become widespread. The article, therefore, is not good evidence of use before 1899.
An earlier article about telegraph-operators’ slang, written in 1905, when “twenty-three” was already popular, suggests that the phrase may not have been as closely associated with telegraphers as later claimed. Tellingly, the article makes no reference to “twenty-three” being part of telegraph-slang, specifically:
“Twenty-three” has almost passed from slang into proper language, but to the average man “seventy-three” is still an unknown quantity.
“Seventy-three” is telegraph slang, and into those two characters are crowded every wish for good. . . . . It appears on the badge of the Magnetic Club, composed largely of those in the telegraph and kindred trades, and a huge “73” in electric lights is the principal decoration at their dinners . . . .”
Evening Star (Washington DC), October 7, 1905, page 12.
But whether or “twenty-three” originated among telegraphers; telegraph operators may have played a role in spreading the word:
“People who travel a good bit are surprised, if they’re observant, at the rapidity with which a new slang phrase will tour the country,” said a salesman whose district is from the Atlantic to the Pacific. “I’ve often left town here with a choice selection of brand new colloquialisms stored up for use on my western friends, only to have them hurled at me on the other side of the Rockies when I stepped off the train.
“The telegraph is what does the trick. Telegraph operators are the great promulgators of slang. An operator in New York hears something new and catchy in the line of slang, and he springs it on an operator in San Francisco. If a colloquialism is coined in Philadelphia in the afternoon, San Francisco gets it three hours earlier the same day. Operators are all the time ‘joshing’ each other over the wire, and slang is ‘just meat’ for them. That’s how it attains instantaneous circulation. And that’s how the ‘wise guy’ of the metropolis gets fooled when he strikes Oshkosh or Oklahoma expecting to dazzle the natives with something shrewd.” – Philadelphia Press.
The Paducah Sun, June 27, 1904, page 6.
Any slang spread by telegraph operators would, presumably, come to the attention of young messenger boys, a form of human e-mail server, who delivering messages all over town. That might explain how newsboys in Chicago might use slang from New York City within weeks after it was coined. If you buy the Dickens origin story, it may not be so surprising that it traveled as quickly as it did. For whatever reason, however, it did not become very popular, or well-known, until after it was picked up in George M. Cohan’s, Little Johnny Jones in late-1904.
A couple sources give fairly detailed descriptions of how “twenty-three” was used as a signal to disperse during a crooked game of dice or roulette. The two descriptions are not even remotely similar. They were also made six to ten years after first use of the expression. It is possible that the gamblers honestly remembered using the term, “twenty-three,” before it became wildly popular during and after 1905; but were mistaken in assuming that it pre-dated first reports of the expression in 1899:
“Twenty-three is an old gamblers’ expression and I heard it years ago,” said an ex-knight of the green cloth recently. “In roulette there is a number 23 and it was always a favorite with pikers. The piker would buy as little as he could and the number 23 seemed to appeal to him. He nearly always would play his last white chip upon the number 23 and then it would be all off with him. The custom of the pikers was so common that the gamblers took it up and ‘23’ became a synonym for ‘all in.’”
The Evening Statesman (Walla Walla, Washington), July 5, 1906, page 3.
Why Twenty-Three Means Down and Out
These spaces marked “conditional” are used in a great many gambling games, such as spindle; they’re the most useful thing in the world for leading the sucker on. For when he throws “conditional,” the dealer tells him that he is in great luck. He has thrown better than a winning number. He has only to double his bet, and on the next throw he will get four times the indicated prize, or if he throws a blank number, the equivalent of his money. He is kept throwing “conditionals” until his whole pile is down; and then made to throw twenty-three – the space which he failed to notice, and which is marked “lose.”
You may ask how the dealer makes the sucker throw just what he wants. Simplest thing in the world. The man is counted out. The table is crowded with boosters, all jostling and reaching for the box, eager to play. The assistant dealer grabs up the dice, adds them hurriedly, announces the number that he wants to announce, and sweeps them back into the box. If the sucker kicks, a booster reaches over next time the dice are counted, says “my play,” and musses them up. The player never knows what he has thrown. I don’t need to say that “twenty-three,” as slang comes from this game. The circus used it for years before it was ever heard on Broadway.
Will Irwin, The Confessions of a Con Man, New York, B. W. Huebsch, 1909, pages 84-85.
It seems more likely that the claim of use, “before it was ever heard Broadway,” refers to the more recent, better known Little Johnny Jones, than to the older, more obscure, The Only Way. It is at least ambiguous on the issue. In any case, it is possible that the writer was mistaken about how old the expression actually was. The catch-phrase, “twenty-three,” does not appear in print (as far as I can tell) between 1899 and 1905. It may have survived within a small circle of con-men and gamblers, after 1899, and become popular again with Little Johnny Jones. There is no definitive evidence of use prior to 1899.
“Skidoo” first appears in the written record a couple years after “Twenty-Three;” as the name of a racing boat. During the sailboat racing seasons of 1901 through 1904, inclusive, M. St. G. Davies skippered the “Lark” class boat, “Skidoo,” in a number of races on Long Island Sound. [v] Since the use of the name on a racing boat, and a fast racing boat, at that, is consistent with the slang sense of leaving in a hurry, it may reflect that the word was already in limited use.
“Lark” class boats were scows, with a shallow draft, and no keel. Although they did not handle as smartly as keeled boats, their shallow profile made them fast. Their size, and simple design, made them affordable for young racers. The introduction of “Lark” class boats in the racing scene sparked some controversy. Several yacht clubs banned them from participating in their races. It was the old-guard versus the young Turks. One of the perceived issues seems to have been their speed:
No sport can flourish that attempts to discourage the young from entering. . . . You must have young blood, young energy, and young spirits, to grow and wax strong. . . . Legislation that tends to keep the young out is thoroughly ill-advised and bad in every way. Yet that is what some of our associations are putting on their books. . . . .
Boats like Lark and Swallow have recruited thousands to the ranks of yachting, the majority of whom never could have joined except for this type of boat. Kill this type and you will deal the sport a mortal blow. . . . .
The rule lately adopted by the Long Island Yacht Racing Association is aimed especially at the scow type, and to favor the building of expensive craft. What can you say against these scows? They are not unsafe. They are not bad sailers. The only objections seem to be that they are fast and can and do win races.
The Rudder, Volume 13, Number 5, May, 1902, page 263.
|A Lark-class boat sailing on Lake Winnepesaukee (The Rudder, Volume 20, 1908)|
The earliest use of “skidoo,” in the sense of “leave,” that I could find, is from Martin Green’s humor column, The Man Higher Up, in the New York Evening World:
“I should think,” suggested the Cigar Store Man, “that the opponents of Sunday baseball would realize that it is healthy for the people to get out in the open air and holler.”
“Skiddoo!” said the Man Higher Up. “Skiddoo!”
The Evening World (New York), April 18 1904, page 10.
The use of the word, without explanation, may indicate that the word was already known, at least in New York City. Four of the next five examples of, “skidoo,” that I could find, all come from the same column. In most cases, the word is used as part of the expression, “skidoo wagon;” a short-lived euphemism for automobile:
They are doing business to-day in the same old stands, advertising for suckers in New York and country newspapers, and the guys that are running them can be seen any pleasant day shooting skidoo wagons through the park or pushing fast horses on the Speedway.
The Evening World, May 11, 1904, Final Results Edition, page 14.
In the early 1900s, people were still learning how to live with new technologies that introduced a new element of danger to the streets. Just as the introduction of electric trolleys had wreaked havoc a decade earlier (which gave us the Los Angeles Dodgers – short for “trolley dodgers”), the automobile brought more speed, and more danger, into streets that had long been the domain of pedestrians and slow-moving, horse-drawn wagons (see also my post on the history of “Jaywalking”). The use of “skidoo” as a designator for cars reflects that speed:
The Benzine Buggy and the Tenement Children.
“I see,” said the Cigar Store Man, “that Commissioner McAdoo is going to police certain east side streets leading to the ferries, so that automobilists won’t be annoyed by the children of the poor falling under their machines.”
“Is is all right to protect the skippers of the skidoo wagons,” replied the Man Higher Up, “but the children of the east side of New York are entitled to all the consideration that can be handed out to them. . . . .
“All at once, around the corner from the avenue, comes an automobile, puffing and snorting and grunting and horn blowing. It is full of men and women, who are plainly contemptuous in their attitude. Does the chauffeur slow up to go through that crowded block of children?
“Not on your speed limit. It is a case of the little ones getting out of the way. Frantic mothers run out and grab up their offspring, strong children hustle the weaker to the gutters, terror-stricken infants fall down and roll in their haste to avoid the puffing monster. The men and women in the skidoo wagon ride along with their noses in the air, leaving behind an odor of gasoline that is distinguishable even in a tenement neighborhood. Is it any wonder that automobiles are not popular in sections where children swarm, especially when nearly every neighborhood in town can show a case of a child whose life has been separated from it by an automobile?
“The automobilists have a license to run their machines through the streets,” protested the Cigar Store Man.
“Surest thing you know,” agreed the Man Higher Up; “but they have no license to run through the people of the streets.”
The Evening World, May 25, 1904, Final Results Edition, page 14.
When speed limits were introduced, early enforcement efforts created new problems:
The Automobile Crop is a Boon to Long Island Farmers.
What’s the use in kicking against a race concentrated into a few hours, even if the Supervisors have issued an order that while the skidoo wagons are skiddooing dogs and chickens must be tied up.
“Look what a good thing the automobiles have been for the Long Island farmers. Through the long, hot summer months every farmer within fifty miles of New York pinned a tin star on his red suspenders and spent his time sitting on a fence and watching for speed violations. They were all constables, and they got half the fines imposed for running over the law.
The Evening World, October 4, 1904, page 13.
“Skidoo,” was also a verb:
She implanted the salute square on the muzzle of the ki-yi [(a dog)], whereupon all the male passengers skiddooed from the car and ran shrieking into a gin mill on the corner. The mutt couldn’t skidoo. The female had him tied.
Evening World, February 7, 1905, Evening Edition, page 10.
Similarities between the sound and meaning of the words, “skedaddle,” and “skidoo” suggest that they might be related. Contemporaneous use of, “skidoodle wagon” and “skedaddle wagon,” as synonyms of “skidoo wagon,” more strongly suggest a direct connection between the two.
In late 1904, the St. Louis Police Department caught speeders, “scorchers,” with their new-fangled “Skidoodle Wagon”:[vi]
St. Louis “Skidoodle” Wagon
The city police in St. Louis, Mo, have adopted the automobile as a patrol wagon for catching motorists who violate the speed ordinance. The vehicle is the product of the St. Louis Motor Carriage Co. of that city and has the standard 12 h. p. single cylinder motor in it. It is used to catch fast driving autoists who attempt to escape the law. It has brass railings, and drop seat directly in rear of driver’s seat, and facing the rear seat. It is upon this that the offender of the automobile ordinance must sit and ride to the station when captured by the “cops.” It is known as the St. Louis “Skidoodle Wagon,” having been so named by the daily papers of that city.
Automobile Review, Volume 27, Number 11, December 31, 1904, page 626.
|The St. Louis Republic, October 25, 1905, page 1.|
The introduction of the police cruiser was apparently one step ahead of speeding tickets. When speeders were caught, they did not receive simple tickets; they were arrested and taken down to the police station:
Unmindful of the presence of the police “skidoodle wagon,” two North Side automobilists took liberties with the speed ordinance last evening and were placed under arrest as a result. They will appear before Judge Pollard this morning. . . . [The policeman] took up the chase, but did not attract any special attention, as he says his machine was not fully extended. He allowed the two men to go as far as Jefferson and St. Louis avenues, where he moved up between them and ordered the chauffeurs to stop. Both were placed under arrest and taken to the Sixth District Police Station, where they were released on bond.
The St. Louis Republic, August 16, 1905, page 5, column 1.
Henry C. Garneu and Thomas W. Crouch Jr. Pay $3.
They were arrested while “scorching” in an automobile in Forest Park Saturday evening. They were caught by Policemen Cooney and Stinger in the police “skidoodle wagon” after a chase.
The St. Louis Republic, April 4, 1905, page 1, column 3.
The new police car was not the first “skidoodle wagon” in St. Louis. Visitors to the St. Louis Fair were exposed to the term in mid-1904:
ST. LOUIS AN AUTO MECCA.
Thousands of motor carriages to be Here for Day at Fair August 11.
St. Louisward thousands of automobiles will wend their ways, beginning to-day.
From all points of the compass will come the red, green, yellow, white and other colored “skidoodle wagons.” They will come singly and in clubs to participate in the ceremonies of St. Louis Day at the Fair, August 11.
They will assemble across the river, and, forming there, they will speed in stately formation across the big bridge and into the World’s Fair grounds. The phalanx will be the greatest procession of the Twentieth-Century carriages since the automobile has become a fact.
The St. Louis Republic, July 25, 1904, page 6, column 6.
An article in a Minnesota newspaper, about an exhibit of early steam engines at the St. Louis World’s Fair, compared Nathan Read’s steam-powered wagon, built in 1789, to modern “skedaddle wagons”:
Wood was fed into the furnace from the rear of the machine and the driver sat just in front of the steam box, while the goods with which he loaded the steam wagon’s receptacle for transporting loads was directly in front of him and extended some 12 or 14 feet in length by about 10 feet in width. This feature of the exhibit attracts a great deal of notice and by many is characterized as the original attempt to produce the “skedaddle wagon” of the present day.
Saint Paul Globe, November 27, 1904, page 5, column 6.
In Salem, Oregon, someone who either liked lawn care, or disliked driving, compared the thrill of mowing the lawn to driving a “ski-doodle wagon”:
A Salem man says there is almost as much excitement in being the chauffeur of a lawn mower as a ski-doodle wagon.
Daily Capital Journal, August 2, 1905, Last Edition, page 5, column 2.
By the end of the year, the ubiquitous and ridiculously popular, “twenty-three for you, skidoo!” seems to have entirely eclipsed “skidoo wagon,” “skidoodle wagon,” and “skedaddle wagon.” I could not find any examples of “skedaddle wagon” after 1905, and only one example of “skidoodle wagon,” and a few instances of “skidoo wagon” extending into the 1910s.
|Motor Talk, Volume 3, No. 1, January 1907, page 20.|
“Twenty-three” and “skidoo” coexisted for several years before they were inextricably combined in about 1905. During the early years, George M. Cohan’s musical, Little Johnny Jones generally received credit for popularizing the two expressions, and their combination.
George M. Cohan’s Little Johnny Jones introduced the world to “I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy,” and “Give My Regards to Broadway.” James Cagney’s famous dance number, from the movie “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” depicts George M. Cohan’s performance in Little Johnny Jones.
Little Johnny Jones made its debut at the Liberty Theatre in New York City on November 7, 1904. When the much anticipated show finally reached Los Angeles in April, 1906, “23” and “skidoo” made a big impression:
Cohan’s Musical Comedy is Californian to the Core and is a Winner – And Such a Chorus!
The much belated but better late than never “Little Johnny Jones “ has arrived. He has been arriving so long and at so many different hopurs that Los Angelans had almost become skeptical but last night he demonstrated he really exists and is surprisingly active little mortal.
The entire Johnny Jones company came with him to the Mason, and it is a large one. There appear to be chorus girls without number and of every variety imaginable. At times it would almost appear that the chorus girls have to work overtime and many of the most beautiful effects are produced by their costumes.
The piece is musical and the scenic effects are far more striking than any which have been seen here this season.
The third act in which the scene is laid in Chinatown, San Francisco, is especially spectacular, and the costume effects all that could be desired.
There are few new jokes but “Little Johnny Jones” does not depend on joes for its popularity.
The Bright Ones
Tom Lewis [(who appeared in the original New York Production)] as The Unknown [(a detective)] is responsible for most of the good ones and his “23,” “skidoo” and a few others never failed to bring forth the intended laughs.
Los Angeles Herald, April 5, 1906, page 3.
The expressions caught on quickly with local theatrical agent, Len Behymer:
Len Behymer’s “Skiddoo”
. . . Mr. Behymer has been quoting “Little Johnny Jones” for several days, and anyone who has chanced to meet him will recall “23 for you,” “skidoo” or some similar phrase.
Los Angeles Herald, April 15, 1906.
The positive response the phrases engendered in Los Angeles may mirror their effects on audiences elsewhere. As early as February, 1906, newspaper accounts in other cities had already made the association between the show, and “twenty-three” and “skidoo.” For their part, however, neither Cohan nor Tom Lewis took credit for creating the terms. Cohan said he first heard the word in San Francisco, and Lewis believed it was gamblers’ code:
For the past six months those who indulge in up-to-date slang have been saying “twenty-three.” The meaning of the expression has been too obvious from its use to require a definition – it is the equivalent and the successor of “get thee hence,” “go ‘long,” “on your way,” “skidoo,” and other methods of conveying the impression that the party of the first part desires the immediate departure from his presence of the party of the second part. . . .
The play that gave “twenty-three” wide-spread popularity is now in Minneapolis, “Little Johnny Jones,” and its author, Cohan, says he doesn’t know where it came from, except that he heard it in San Francisco.
Tom Lewis who plays the detective and says: “twenty-three for you,” however, has a theory that seems reasonable.
“It was originally a gambling term,” he says, “used in connection with a dice game, worked by grafters connected with the circus. Twenty-three was the throw of the dice that got the money, and when it was called it was also a signal for the cappers to get out of the way quick before the victim made a roar to get his money back. It would be used with variations sometimes such as ‘eighteen and five,’ ‘eleven and twelve.’ The cappers would do a little mental arithmetic and then hike for the tall timber.”
The Minneapolis Journal, February 13, 1906, Page 11.
Despite their denials, several more articles published in 1906 continued giving them credit. Five years later, the San Francisco Call (November 21, 1909, page 27) reported that, “’Skidoo’ and ‘Twenty-three’ are Cohan expressions.” We know, however, that such an attribution is overstated, as “twenty-three” and “skidoo” both pre-dated Little Johnny Jones. But what role did the play play in popularizing the two expressions?
Little Johnny Jones
Little Johnny Jones is a story about an American jockey whose reputation is tarnished by allegations of throwing a race in England. It was a lie, of course, and a detective gets the good on the bad guys. The detective speaks the line, “twenty-three,” several times in the play, and the word, “skidoo,” once; but does not put the two words together.
In one scene, the detective is trying to get rid of an annoying waiter, in what may be an early precursor of Abbot and Costello’s “Who’s on First” gag:
Waiter. I have a cup of tea here, sir.
Wilson. Well, go ahead and drink it, don't let me stop you.
Waiter. Thank you, sir.
Waiter. What sir?
Waiter. Who, sir?
Waiter. No sir, thirty-six. Is there anything else I can do, sir?
Wilson. If there was you wouldn't be a waiter. (Waiter turns and
exits into door L.)
Transcript of a script of Little Johnny Jones available at: Doug Reside, The New York Public Library Blog, Musical of the Month: Little Johnny Jones.
|Tom Lewis (left), in Little Johnny Jones|
Towards the end of the show, the detective rehabilitates Johnny Jones’ reputation, and tries to get rid of one of the bad guys; McGee:
I am tickled to death to see you with this man - McGee. (At mention of his name McGee turns and swells up.) He's a good man - I know him. He's a Brooklyn Elk. You don't want to overlook this jockey Jones. They may have fixed that horse in England but they couldn't fix the jockey. He's the candy all right. I don't blame your niece for getting sweet on him. (At this McGee strolls down stage.) but this man with the gray looks. He's no good, arouse mit him. I'm going to get him to sign this, the skedew. I want to give you a little bit of advice.
Transcript of a script of Little Johnny Jones available at: Doug Reside, The New York Public Library Blog, Musical of the Month: Little Johnny Jones.
|Tom Lewis (left), in Little Johnny Jones|
The use of “arouse mit him,” is apparently an Anglicized version of the German phrase, “’raus mit ihm,” meaning “out with him. The meaning of the German expression reinforces the meaning of the word, “skewdew” (apparently an alternate spelling, or possible transcription error, of “skidoo”). “’Raus mit ihm” would not have been as esoteric in 1904 as it may be today. A song entitled “’Raus mit ihm,” had been a hit in 1899 and the country was filled with many more, recent German-speaking immigrants at the time.
Little Johnny Jones may have popularized the two expressions, separately, and been mistakenly credited with the combination. The script (as published and transcribed) does not appear to be the source of the combination. Several sources credit the actor, Tom Lewis, by name. It is possible that h ad-libbed the line; got a big laugh; and continued using the expression, despite different dialogue in the script. It is also possible that the two expressions became popular separately, but were combined by the public, naturally, based on similar meanings and usage.
In November 1905, however, a newspaper in Oklahoma, credited a different vaudeville act, the Roger Bros., for the expression, “It’s Twenty-three for yours!”:
“Its Twenty-Three For Yours!”
Roger Bros.’ Famous French Slang Phrase in Police Court.
The Guthrie Daily Leader (Guthrie, Oklahoma), November 11, 1905, page 1.
The Rogers Brothers were well known vaudeville performers who had been around since at least 1890. For many years, they performed as “German comedians,” known for their “Teutonic witicisms.” In 1898, however, they became headliners; first in The Reign of Error,[vii] and then in a series of shows set in different locations – the titles sound a bit like Hope/Crosby road pictures: The Rogers Brothers in Wall Street (1899); The Rogers Brothers in Central Park (1900); The Rogers Brothers in Washington (1901), The Rogers Brothers in Harvard (1902), The Rogers Brothers in London (1903), The Rogers Brothers in Paris (1904), and The Rogers Brothers in Ireland (1905).
|Gus and Max Rogers in, The Rogers Brothers in Paris, Der Deutsche Correspondent (Baltimore Maryland), February 12, 1905, page 5.|
The show, The Rogers Brothers in Paris, from 1904, may explain the Oklahoma headline’s reference to “twenty-three” being a, “French Slang Phrase,” in 1905. But although searches for the phrase, “Rogers Brothers,” yields hundreds of hits between 1898 and 1906, only this one article, credits them with popularizing the phrase. They may have started using the phrase after it was used in Little Johnny Jones; or, their use may simply reflect the same awareness of the phrase that led to its being used in Little Johnny Jones as well. Their use of the phrase at least illustrates how popular the phrase had become by late 1905.
As noted earlier, “twenty-three” first appeared in 1899, but does not appear in print again, to my knowledge, until about six years later; nearly a year after Little Johnny Jones debuted. In the earliest example that I could find, it appears along with, “skidoo,” but not in the familiar, “twenty-three; skidoo!” format. The context suggests that both expressions had already reached a high level of familiarity. They appear in a “humorous” story about a relentless, traveling, encyclopedia salesman. Each negative response by the customer triggers the salesman to tout a corresponding selling point:
“Get out!” roared the man. “Didn’t I tell you that I ain’t in no need of that book?”
“From your language, sir, I infer that you are. It contains a chapter on the correct use of the English language, rules of etiquette ---“
Skiddoo! Git! Twenty-three for yours!” howled the victim.
“It also contains an up-to-date slang dictionary and ---“
“Say,” roared the man, “will you get out of here, or will I have to throw you out?”
“--- also contains a jiu jitsu treatise, an easy way of getting rid of objectionable persons like myself, and it also ---“
“I’ll take it then,” he said, sinking meekly into his chair, “and as soon as I learn that jiu jitsu I pity you or any book agent that comes around and tries to sell me gold bricks! How much?” – New York Sun.
Dakota Farmers’ Leader (Canton, South Dakota), August 18, 1905, page 6, column 3.
Many other early examples are phrased, “twenty-three for you (or mine/or yours);” often followed immediately by “skidoo.”
Twenty-three for mine – skidoo!
Evening Star, September 23, 1905, page 2.
In St. Louis, home of the “skidoodle wagon,” you could purchase twenty-three “Ski-doo” Fruit Wafers for a dime:
Twenty-three for You. The Candy Man has something entirely new for you in his Ski-doo Fruit Wafers, and even 23 won’t be enough for you – yes, 23 for only 10c.
St. Louis Republic (Missouri), November 5, 1905, page 25.
Twenty-three for his! Skidoo.
Goodwin’s Weekly (Salt Lake City, Utah), January 6, 1906, page 6.
When freshmen at the University of Illinois beat the sophomores in some inter-class competition, they gloated:
Have a look! Have a look!
Ye conquered sophomores!
Now that you have met defeat
Yours heads are hanging toward your feet.
But if your head you chance to raise
A victorious Freshman meets your gaze.
You are lobsters every one!
The biggest dubs beneath the sun.
Poor chesty sophs, you failed to shine.
23! Skidoo! Poo Poo for you. ’09.
The Daily Illini, November 9, 1905, page 1.
|New York Clipper, Volume 54, Number 7, April 7, 1906, page 190.|
|New York Clipper, Volume 54, Number 7, April 7, 1906, page 202.|
Imposing Shakespearean actor, the original Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and “dean of the American stage,” Richard Mansfield, even got in on the act with, “Skidoo, 23”:
Mr. Richard Mansfield, who has been accounted “as mild a mannered man as ever scuttled ship or cut a throat,” is out with a protest against his growing reputation as a self-centered cynic. Mr. Mansfield declares this reputation does him a great injustice, that he is really tame and will eat out of the hand, jump thru hoops and count up to nine at command. . . .
The dean of the American stage does admit having been irritated once. It was when he was doing the dying scene in one of his plays. The house was still and nobody dropped a pin, but suddenly an athletic scene shifter let off a sneeze that shook the stage and made the footlights twitter. The scene was ruined. Mansfield felt the humiliation of the affair, but even then he refrained from bloodshed. Stepping to the edge of the scene, he murmured: “Skidoo, 23,” and on such a slight foundation has Mr. Mansfield’s reputation as a terror been constructed.
The Minneapolis Journal, March 11, 1906, part 2 (Editorial), page 4.
The familiar form, “Twenty-three - Skidoo!” first appears in 1906. Barry Popik, renowned word sleuth and proprietor of the online etymology dictionary, The Big Apple, uncovered the earliest known example of the now familiar form. In April, 1906, Billy B. Van performed the song, “Twenty-three -- Skiddoo!” one of the, “two best songs of the spring season,” in The Errand Boy:
New York Clipper, Volume 4, Number 9, April 21, 1906, page 258.
Soon, the expression was everywhere:
|The Evening World (New York), May 4, 1906, page 3.|
|New York Tribune, July 29, 1906, page 38.|
Gunner – I see where a man in the southwest had twenty-three children and then disappeared. What do you think of that?
Guyer – Why, that was nothing unusual.
Gunner – What?
Guyer – Why, twenty-three – skidoo!
The Plymouth Tribune (Plymouth, Indiana), November 15, 1906, page 6.
23, skidoo, for you, do you mind?
Dakota Farmers’ Leader (Canton, South Dakota), June 22, 1906, page 4.
“Mary” had her little lamb, all right, in the shape of a huge toy production on wheels, which “she” pulled after “her” with a string; and on the lamb appeared the mystic legend “23 – skidoo!” This vision moved many of the spectators to tears. It would have melted the heart of a stone dog.
Goodwin’s Weekly (Salt Lake, City), July 21, 1906, page 10.
“23 – Skiddoo” sale at “The Hub” is a winner for you.
Arizona Republican (Phoenix), August 10, 1906, page 4.
|Arizona Republican, August 15, 1906, page 6.|
“23” and “Skiddoo” hit the “big screen” together (how big were movie screens big then?) in June of 1906; in a film that hearkens back to the days of the “skidoo wagons” racing through Central Park:
“23” Or The Brief Experience of the Skiddoo Bros. in Society.
This new and humorous film will be appreciated by everyone who has laughed at the predicaments of the famous hall room boys. It shows how they called on the Astorbilt Sisters and how they went for an automobile ride in Central Park. Is beautiful in photography, and a laugh from start to finish.
The New York Clipper, Volume 54, Number 16, June 9, 1906, page 450.
|New York Clipper, Volume 54, Number 16, June 9, 1906, page 450.|
But nothing lasts forever. In 1916, one writer wondered:
What’s become of “Twenty-three: Skidoo!”
The Day Book (Chicago, Illinois), June 27, 1916, last edition, page 12.
What became of “Twenty-three: Skidoo?”
I guess it, “twenty-three, skidooed.”
|The Minneapolis Journal, December 23, 1906, Part II, page 1.|
[ii] Another reviewer reported that “’The Only Way’ has three powerful climaxes. . . .” The Times (Washington DC), September 24, 1899, second part, page 17. Presumably Carton’s beheading was one of those climaxes.
[iii] Louis Henry Curzon, The Blue Ribbon of the Turf: a Chronicle of the Race for the Derby, Philadelphia, Gebbie, 1890.
[iv] Rare and Valuable Books and Colored Sporting Prints, Including Selections from the Library of George G. Tillotson of Wilkes-Barre, Pa. to be sold February 1 and 2, 1910, New York, Anderson Auction Co., No. 805, 1910.
[v] See, e.g., A. F. Aldridge, The Yachting Record: Summaries of All Races Sailed on New York Harbor, Long Island Sound and Off Newport in 1901, New York, Thomson and Company, page 16 (Indian Harbor Yacht Club, Spring Race, Thursday, May 30, 1901); New York Tribune, June 14, 1902, page 4 (New-Rochelle Club Regatta); The Sun, June 14, 1903, page 8 (Larchmont Spring Regatta; “The Skidoo won the race for the Larks.”); Motoring and Boating, Volume 1, Number 11, June 15, 1904, page 336 (Manhasset Bay Regatta).
[vi] The word, “skidoodle wagon,” echoes an earlier use of the word, “doodle-doodle wagon,” for the vehicle that takes crazy people to the insane asylum: “Adams, ye’er nutty, an’ I’m sorry for ye’er family this minute. I should be callin’ the doole-doodle wagon, instead of standin’ here gossipin’ wid ye, an’ listenin’ to ye’er insane maunderin’s as if ye had the power of consicutive thought. There was no snow in Gar-r-field Par-rk this mornin’.” The Saint Paul Globe (Minnesota), September 16, 1900, page 5. This was the only use of, “doodle-doodle wagon,” that I could find, so I cannot say whether it was a common expression or a one-off, or whether it could have had any influence on the later development of “skidoodle wagon.”
[vii] The title of the Rogers Brothers first successful show as headliners gave me some pause. The Reign of Error appears to be a play on the expression, “reign of terror,” used to denote the period of violence following the French Revolution; the period of time during which A Tale of Two Cities is set. Might they have originated the phrase in a parody of A Tale of Two Cities, even before The Only Way premiered? The Reign of Error, however, was not a parody of A Tale of Two Cities; it was about the adventures of a troupe of European performers on a road-trip to Brazil. The connection appears to be merely coincidental.