"23 skidoo" and related matters

Gerald Cohen gcohen at UMR.EDU
Thu Oct 3 00:53:15 UTC 2002

>At 12:43 PM -0400 10/2/02, Fred Shapiro wrote:
>On Tue, 1 Oct 2002, Gerald Cohen wrote:
>>      I always associated "23" (= scram, go away) with the twenty-third
>>  psalm, recited so often at funerals; the number connected with
>>  departing from this world may have become generic for rapid departure.
>>      Cf. "take a powder" (scram, leave), originally referring to
>>  putting a poisonous powder in one's drink. Death-wishes have provided
>>  at least one expression for slang "scram," perhaps more.
>I won't get back into criticizing people for blue-sky etymological
>conjectures at this point, but let me ask Jerry, what is your evidence for
>"taking a powder" originally referring to putting a poisonous powder in
>one's drink?

   I read about "take a powder" many years ago but no longer remember
the source.
(It was in connection with the once-frequent use in Italy of slipping
a poisonous powder into the drink of someone to be eliminated). So I
have no problem with anyone deciding to reject what I said unless or
until the source can be located.

    But I would like to address Fred's non-criticism criticism of my
speculating about etymology.  Detectives do a lot of speculating at
the start of a case; most of the leads prove false, but it is
nonetheless valuable to check them out. Scientists do an enormous
amount of speculating about what may or may not work to cure a
disease; again, there are many false starts, and yet setting forth
all the possibilities is valuable.  One might actually provide the

    I have been working in etymology for some 32 years and have made
more incorrect guesses than I can count; I try to catch them all
before they get into print but am not always successful.  But I also
say unabashedly that I am not afraid to make mistakes; they are an
integral part of the learning process.
As the late, great linguist Roman Jakobson (pronounced Yakobson) one said:
"A bad theory leads to a better theory. The absence of a theory leads
to nothing."

     Now, the question here is whether the ads-l site is an
appropriate place to speculate.  I certainly hope it is. If the
members interested in etymology were in my living room, I would bat
around various ideas with them. This is a conversation, an enjoyable
dialogue, which at least sometimes bears fruit. But the members are
not in my living room; they are out there somewhere, and so we bat
around the ideas on ads-l.

    To say that an idea is not only wrong but should not even be
expressed is to stifle the discussion. This is troubling. Some of my
most scholarly material (e.g. the two monographs on the origin of
"shyster") arose from initial stumbles. So while I fully respect and
greatly welcome Fred's contributions which come from concentrating on
initial attestations, I also see value in trying one's best to figure
out the origin of a word or expression.

   Our approaches are certainly not mutually exclusive, since an
incorrect proposed etymology can lead to the discovery of an original
citation (this happened with my initially stumbling work on
"shyster"; the first attestations were then discovered by NY
Historical Society librarian Roger Mohovich). Barry Popik has also
often unearthed very valuable material after he or I (or both)
stumbled initially.

    And when the discoveries are made which conclusively solve part or
all of an etymological problem, that is a cause for celebration all

Gerald Cohen

More information about the Ads-l mailing list