In Sunday's Boston Globe I fill in for Jan Freeman, who writes a regular language column called "The Word." My topic is a silly new word that appears in the movie "Kung Fu Panda": skadoosh. It came from the fertile mind of Jack Black, voice of Po the Panda, who was inspired by an equally silly old slang expression, 23 skidoo. And skidoo probably came from scadoodle, which in turn is a variant of skedaddle. Whew!
In the column, I mention that the development of skedaddle, scadoodle, and skidoo could have been influenced by some regional Americanisms of Scottish origin, verbs describing hurried motion like scoot, scooch, and skoosh. These words all start with the /sk-/ sound, and if you think about it, a lot of fast-moving verbs start with /sk-/ or /skr-/. I put together a word list with 15 of them, including scamper, scatter, scramble, scurry, scuttle, and skitter.
Why do we have this cluster of /sk-/ verbs in English? They don't all come from the same etymological source. For instance, scamper probably comes from Latin excampare "to decamp," while scurry is short for hurry-scurry, a reduplicated form of hurry. It's almost as if there's a hidden force guiding words from different origins to converge on /sk-/ as the sound of skittishness, with skadoosh being the latest example.
Linguists refer to these bits of words that seem to cluster around certain meanings as phonesthemes. Among scholars of the phenomenon, the jury is still out on how much "psychological reality" these word-bits really have. And just because there's a particular cluster like the scurrying /sk-/ verbs doesn't mean that the same sounds can't form another loose semantic group. With the help of Visual Thesaurus wordmaps, it's easy to come up other possible word clusters with /sk-/ or /skr-/ like scuff, skin, scrape, and scratch (surface abrasion) or scum, scurf, and scrap (cast-off stuff).
The problem with research into phonesthemes is that this kind of "clustering" is very often in the eye of the beholder. But if you're interested in further investigations into these semantic affinities, check out Benjamin K. Shisler's Dictionary of English Phonesthemes. For now, I'm skedaddling out of here.
Ben Zimmer is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society.Click here to read other articles by Ben Zimmer
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